The two competing sides of the romantic triangle in “Cyrano de Bergerac” are divided between one man rich in soul and intellect but lacking in outer beauty and another who’s easy on the eye but somewhat empty. Given how clearly Edmond Rostand’s classic play sides with the former, it’s unfortunate that David Leveaux’s only intermittently effective revival lands inadvertently in the latter direction. We get gorgeous stage pictures and an eloquent if oddly low-energy performance in the title role from Kevin Kline but not much in the way of real passion.
Coming more than 20 years after the play’s last Broadway presentation (Terry Hands’ celebrated 1984 staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Derek Jacobi), there are certainly few complaints about the physical trappings here.
As in their collaboration on “Fiddler on the Roof,” Brit director Leveaux and designer Tom Pye have created an extravagant playing space of uncommon depth and this time even more imposing height, building a massive brick-walled hall with enormous rear staircase, embellished with trees, moon and balcony.
After all the busy curtain action in his misconceived revival of “The Glass Menagerie,” Leveaux’s fascination with billowing drapery makes him the Martha Stewart of stage direction. This production — graced also by Gregory Gale’s sumptuous costumes and Donald Holder’s majestic, cathedral-like lighting — has some exquisite visuals. There’s a painterly quality frequently recalling the 17th century Dutch masters, notably in the final scene, with Kline’s Cyrano revealing his unrequited love while Roxane (Jennifer Garner) sits at her embroidery, both of them backlit by rows of candles as autumn leaves flutter down.
But that tragic scene — in which Roxane becomes aware, too late, that the true source of the love that has so overwhelmed her is the poet with the outsize schnoz and not inarticulate pretty boy Christian (Daniel Sunjata) — fails to massage the heart the way it does the eyes.
In contrast to the bold design statements, Leveaux imposes a modern, naturalistic feel on a play that should thrum with melodramatic grandness and hyperbole. It’s all a little tame and sober: Even the soaring declarations of love lack intensity.
A big part of the problem is the uneven cast. As the woman who inflames the passions of both men, Garner joins a recent succession of female movie stars — Julia Roberts, Julianne Moore, Claire Danes — whose Broadway bows were not exactly regrettable, but nothing to sing about, either. A fine-boned beauty, Garner looks radiant and carries herself with grace. It’s not confidence she lacks but subtlety. She has a nice touch in comedic moments, better when rendered goofy by love than when enraptured by it or stricken by its loss. But there’s rarely a moment when she doesn’t seem to be trying too hard; it’s like a performance in a college production, which was probably the last time Garner was onstage.
More inadequate is Sunjata as the dashing but dullish soldier who enlists erudite Cyrano to give him words of love. Back on Broadway for the first time since “Take Me Out,” his Christian is flat and too contemporary. When Sunjata and Garner are alone together onstage, untroubled by any kind of sexual connection, their lack of command over the language sucks the life out of the play.
Some of the supporting cast are more on target: Chris Sarandon is both suitably oily and ultimately humanized as De Guiche; the reliable Max Baker does lively work as poetically inclined cook Ragueneau; and Concetta Tomei adds some droll notes to Roxane’s Duenna.
But “Cyrano,” of course, is all about the nose. Still spry and almost criminally youthful at 60, the prosthetically enhanced Kline is given a playful star entrance, disrupting the characters onstage from one of the boxes during an aborted performance within the play and then scrambling down to join them.
While Kline at times seems to be in his own universe here, his vocal work is impeccable; the elegant verse, alliteration and flowery wordplay of Anthony Burgess’ translation trip effortlessly off his tongue. When he throws the ridicule back in the face of witless challenger Valvert (Carman Lacivita), revving up into an almost musical lexicon of taunts about his beak while never breaking a sweat in the accompanying swordfight, Kline reveals how entertaining this play can be in the right hands. But those sparks are allowed to wane often and the actor at times seems almost disengaged.
Like his introspective King Lear in a production at the Public earlier this year, Kline’s Cyrano displays the sorrow beneath his self-assurance, affectingly acknowledging that for all his intelligence, poise, courage and rapier wit, this is a man who feels doomed to loneliness by his physical appearance. That observation is inarguably central to the character, but such a subdued Cyrano ends up dampening the entire play. This is the man, after all, who declares, “I’ve decided to excel in everything.”
The melancholy strain in Kline’s performance would appear to invite reflection on how Rostand’s account of looks vs. soul resonates in a contemporary culture obsessed with superficial beauty. But Leveaux’s handsome, hollow production only compounds the imbalance.