Say you’re a producer. Where do you find an able swordsman for your duel? Who’s capable of delivering a starchy dis (e.g., “rat-brained dunce”) and making it sting? How do you locate an actor suave enough to romance your heroine wistfully, from afar? Simple: You call Kevin Kline.
Chances are he won’t call you back. The witty, refined classical actor sometimes heralded as “America’s Olivier” is also called “Kevin Decline,” because, after achieving massive cachet in the theater, he all but vacated it, saving himself for the plummest of the plum roles. Lately, they’ve been tough going: Kline was too mannered for Falstaff, too grounded for Lear. The slim bit of good news from the new Broadway revival of Cyrano de Bergerac is that he’s encountered a role that more or less suits him.
As the long-nosed, heartsick warrior-poet who courts Roxane in letters signed by another man, Kline makes the most of his easy way with a blade—and a couplet. While he is spinning out some particularly lovely bit of Edmond Rostand’s verse (in Anthony Burgess’s translation), as when Cyrano describes a kiss as “The very ‘O’ of love, in the expectant lips. / Eternity in the instant the bee sips,” it’s easy to see why so many cheered his arrival years ago, and have clamored for his return ever since.
But in a gruesome little irony, director David Leveaux has staged a play that’s enraptured with words by showing them no respect at all. Cyrano feeds pretty phrases to handsome Christian (Daniel Sunjata, stretching) on a set so looming, so dumbly gigantic, that seventeenth-century France appears to be a warehouse turned party space. Jennifer Garner’s good-faith effort sometimes lands her near Roxane, but a liveliness vital to the character isn’t there.
Still, she has the good fortune to appear in two scenes sure to be remembered when we pick the highlights of Kline’s career. In the balcony scene—when Roxane thinks she’s being wooed by Christian but actually is hearing Cyrano—he’s rhapsodic and comical; at the finale, when he reads one last letter, he suffers handsomely. In neither is he called upon to deliver the outsize passion that has tripped him up in other roles lately, or to get all that intimate with someone else. If any producer locates more choice parts along these lines, would you please make Kline an offer? He can’t say no to them all.