×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘King Lear’ Starring Frank Langella

The formidable actor's turn in Shakespeare's title role is a revelation of breadth and nuance, with just the smallest dash of hamminess.

With:

Frank Langella, Sebastian Armesto, Max Bennett, Denis Conway, Isabella Laughland, Catherine McCormack,  Harry Melling, Lauren O'Neil, Steven Pacey.

Given Frank Langella’s rock-solid stage background, it should come as no surprise that the old lion makes a formidable monarch in “King Lear.”  Under Angus Jackson’s firm helming, the Chichester Festival Theater production of the Shakespeare tragedy is all business — no bells, no whistles, no bluster.  Super-clean staging and tight ensemble work provide strong support for Langella, who turns in a thoughtful, moving, and well-rounded perf that is only the teensiest bit hammy.  (Die, already!) 

From the Prince of Homburg to Cyrano, Dracula and Richard M. Nixon, heroically scaled heroes and villains have always appealed to Langella.  So rather than being a stretch for him, playing an outsized character like Lear seems to be a logical career move.  Just the same, his performance has such breadth and nuance that it’s something of a revelation.

Although the aged monarch is no longer at the height of his powers when he first strides onstage with his full court, Langella makes sure that he’s still a compelling figure — and every inch a king.  Lear’s ego is huge when he reflects on the grandeur of his kingdom, and his rage is monstrous when his beloved youngest daughter refuses to flatter him for her share of his riches.  But by the end of the scene, under the thesp’s subtle touch, the old king has already begun to shrink in size.

Langella guides Lear through his further decline and ultimate breakdown with the same measure of sensitivity, chipping away at his sense of pride and grasp of power until he ends up on the heath, howling in the wind.  But he also brings out the gentlest Lear I’ve ever seen, tenderly cradling the sad Fool (Harry Melling) and the wretched Poor Tom (Sebastian Armesto) in his arms.

Those bone-chilling scenes on the heath where Lear goes mad and the blinded Gloucester (a wholly sympathetic Denis Conway) goes to kill himself are the centerpiece of the play, and helmer Jackson has set them up with care.  The austere design of Robert Innes Hopkins’s unit set — plain planked stage, towering wood-beamed “trees,” dramatic backlighting — sends a strong message about the loneliness of madness and despair.

The court scenes seem too sparse a platform for the machinations of Lear’s cruel daughters, Goneril and Regan (Catherine McCormack and Lauren O’Neil, both extremely scary).  And the unattractive costumes do these royal ladies no great service.  Even the young and pretty Isabella Laughland, playing Cordelia, looks frumpy in her shapeless colorless sack.

The men at court do infinitely better in tight tights and well-fitted, smartly tailored jackets.   As the dastardly bastard Edmund, Max Bennett gets to wear the tightest of those tight tights, cutting such a fine figure that it’s no wonder both Goneril and Regan jump his bones.  But there’s another reason why Bennett is so eye-catching — he’s a fantastic actor.  Vocally assured and quick on his feet, he claims the stage with total assurance.  But it’s not all for show.  There’s an intelligence to his delivery that makes every word of every line of every speech perfectly understandable.  Wonder what he’ll be doing in, say, 40 years.

Popular on Variety

Off Broadway Review: 'King Lear' Starring Frank Langella

BAM Harvey Theater; 834 seats; $115 top.  Opened Jan. 16, 2014.  Reviewed Jan. 15.  Running time:  THREE HOURS.

Production:

A Brooklyn Academy of Music presentation of the Chichester Festival Theater production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. 

Creative:

Directed by Angus Jackson.  Sets & costumes, Robert Innes Hopkins; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Fergus O'Hare; original music, Isobel Waller-Bridge; production stage manager, R. Michael Blanco.

Cast:

Frank Langella, Sebastian Armesto, Max Bennett, Denis Conway, Isabella Laughland, Catherine McCormack,  Harry Melling, Lauren O'Neil, Steven Pacey.

More Legit

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content