Credit helmer Jamie Lloyd with an original concept for staging Rostand’s 19th-century romantic drama. Ditching the affected manners, elaborate court dress, and elegant verse readings associated with classic presentations of this French masterpiece, the Brit director portrays Cyrano as a swashbuckling military leader with the same lusty appetites as his soldiers — who happen to enjoy a good poetry contest as much as a tavern brawl. But a lack of restraint spoils the fun, making it all seem too big (Cyrano’s honker), too much (stomping on tables), and over the top (Douglas Hodge’s star turn).
Lloyd’s big achievement is to remind us that France is at war with Spain, so there are troops everywhere waiting to be shipped off to the battlefield. Lloyd’s production doesn’t open as usual, with tout le monde in attendance at a fine theater to enjoy a fashionable play, but in the dirt courtyard of a common inn filled with boisterous soldiers. The new social milieu is further established by Soutra Gilmour’s rough setting and scruffy costumes — no fancy duds around here.
These uncouth men, with their filthy clothes and ratted hair (designed by Amanda Miller), apparently love a verse drama as much as any court dandy does. They’re more excited, though, about the fight brewing between Cyrano de Bergerac (Hodge), a hot-blooded Guardsman, and the classical actor he drove from the stage for overacting. Getting into the spirit for a good brawl, the soldiers drink themselves blind, and pound their boot heels on the wooden tavern furniture — which is quite fun until, after much repetition, it isn’t.
In the same way, Hodge’s dynamic interpretation of Cyrano is initially thrilling. This sensitive poet and graceful duelist has been reborn as a blunt soldier and a man of action, much admired by other blunt soldiers and men of action. Hodge (returning to Broadway after his much-lauded debut in “La Cage aux Folles”) sustains this interesting characterization throughout the wooing scenes he plays with Christian (Kyle Soller, who is pretty enough, but a wooden performer), the young cadet who wins Roxane’s heart by mouthing Cyrano’s poems of love.
This more robust Cyrano also allows Hodge to play to the heightened vulnerability of manly men who find themselves in love. For all his verbal eloquence, this bluff warrior with the grotesque nose is pitifully unnerved by his feelings for the lovely Roxane, portrayed here in a gem of a performance by Clemence Poesy, a young French actress with a true taste for Rostand’s witty poetry.
Clever as it seemed in the opening scenes, the concept soon overwhelms Rostand’s high classical style and soaring poetry. Hodge is undone by the sheer athleticism of the production style, and the vulgarized courtiers have no more taste for poetry than the soldiers.
Poesy, however, never for an instant allows Roxane to lose her wit and intelligence. Patrick Page (out of costume at last after his gig as the Goblin in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”) also rises above it all with his beautifully articulated perf as the despicable Count de Guiche. Funny enough, de Guiche is the only character in the play to wear the traditional French lace collar — but on Page it looks anything but effete. Truly manly men, it seems, can get away with wearing lace collars and speaking in rhyming couplets.