The word “maverick” has been so thoroughly co-opted as a catchall credential by the Republican presidential campaign that it may be forever tied to that context. But for a true illustration of a staunchly independent dissenter worthy of that label, history is a better place to look — for instance, to Robert Bolt’s depiction of Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons.” The 1961 drama about the martyrdom of the chancellor of England under Henry VIII is not without windy preachiness. But the Roundabout staging becomes more gripping as it proceeds, driven by a performance from Frank Langella as measured and naturalistic as it is majestic.
The first question in approaching any historical play concerns its relevance to audiences today, and, to his credit, director Doug Hughes hasn’t belabored that consideration. However, given Bolt’s pointed contemplation of a self-serving executive branch run by unprincipled men and built on secrecy, cronyism, unaccountability, intimidation and vindictiveness, you’d have to be dozing to miss the connection.
Even without the Common Man, a multipurpose commentator character who was excised from the 1966 movie and remains absent in this first Broadway revival, Bolt’s observation of the ways in which probity can be perceived as an encumbrance to government in any age remains clear. More (Langella) could be referring as much to present-day D.C. as 16th century England when he tells Dakin Matthews’ amusingly cranky Cardinal Wolsey, “I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties … they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
Given the play’s still-pertinent disdain for delinquent politics, not to mention the humanity and bone-dry wit of Langella’s characterization, it’s a pity Hughes’ production gets bogged down in ponderousness during the long first act.
The exposition is admittedly an onerous task. Wishing to offload Catherine of Aragon after she’s been unable to produce a male heir, and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII (Patrick Page) angles to obtain a papal dispensation to carry out his intentions. After repeated failure, he severs England’s connection to the Catholic Church, prompting More to resign as chancellor — a decision that reverberates across Europe.
More believes his refusal to speak against the king’s remarriage makes him invulnerable to charges of treason. But others say silence equals protest — you’re either with us or against us, in contemporary parlance.
Act two picks up speed, and the conflicts become more vivid as More’s isolation morphs from political exile to victimization to condemnation.
One of the strengths of Bolt’s dense play is its insight into how More’s convictions shape the motivations and actions of those around him. His wife, Alice (Maryann Plunkett), can only comprehend the threat to the family’s safety, not her husband’s refusal to yield, while his daughter Margaret (Hannah Cabell) is on her father’s wavelength but still urges that he save himself by recognizing Lady Anne as queen.
The Machiavellian forces surrounding More include the oily Spanish ambassador (Triney Sandoval), smarting from the damage to his countrywoman Catherine; opportunistic climber Richard Rich (Jeremy Strong); the Duke of Norfolk (Michel Gill), a loyal friend cornered into plotting against More at the risk of his own neck; and puppet master Thomas Cromwell (Zach Grenier), the king’s scheming secretary.
The detailed chronicle of how seemingly minor information is gathered and rendered incriminating is absorbing, even if the network of treachery and helplessness around More could have used bolder strokes.
The play is a star vehicle disguised as ensemble drama. Gill shows affecting depth of character; Plunkett is wrenching in her big scene in which Alice’s bitterness gives way to pain; Page brings dimpled smugness and fits of pique to the king; and Grenier makes an entertaining villain out of smarmy toad Cromwell. But these characters are all hampered by Bolt’s self-important conception of More as an immovable pillar of virtue and moral fortitude.
By denying the man more than a flicker of doubt or remorse over the consequences of his actions, and by drawing adversaries that outwit him with cunning but never with intellect, the playwright robs the drama of texture. Sure, there’s a gut emotional impact in the injustice of watching a great man crushed while lesser ones step over him, but there’s too little ambiguity here.
Langella’s performance, however, is sufficiently commanding to overcome the role’s limited dimension. The actor’s effortless authority is softened by a playful sense of irony that makes it seem only natural he would toss off a cutting remark even while being sentenced to die. Humility is not a major asset in Langella’s arsenal, but a shot of arrogance adds color to his More, and the penetrating assessments he makes of both friends and foe come through loud and clear, often without words.
Occasionally, the actor indulges in histrionic flashes of temper, but it’s in the quieter notes that his performance mesmerizes: a sobering change of expression to uncover the first chink in his statesmanlike armor as Cromwell shows his hand; gently running a finger across his throat as if to imagine how the executioner’s blade will feel; the clouding over of his face as defeat registers. And Langella’s physical decline — from a towering figure to an ashen, limping man, worn down by imprisonment but intellectually undiminished — is shattering.
Particularly in the early scenes, Hughes might have goosed the pace along, but his choice of craft collaborators can hardly be faulted. Catherine Zuber’s weighty costumes and David Lander’s chiaroscuro lighting both add gravitas. And David Van Tieghem’s pristine sound aids considerably in following the discourse-heavy action, while his brooding, modern music guides the transitions.
But the unifying element is Santo Loquasto’s arresting set — sparely dressed, with economic use of simple, period-defining props, shifting rear panels and evocative washes of light to create different locations. The cathedral-like maze of austere wooden beams serves as both an appropriately hallowed space for a man of unshakable faith in religion and the law and as the gallows to which he inevitably ascends.