The first thing you notice about Doug Hughes’s production of A Man for All Seasons is the pitilessly rectilinear set: great mission-minded timbers from the pages of Architectural Digest, lit like a high-end McMansion. Turns out design is destiny: This Man, like its carpentry, is square, sterile, and wooden—a cigar-store Indian with a painted tear.
Not for lack of effort, mind you. You don’t raise a barn that massive without a seriousness of intent. Hughes (Doubt, Mauritius) has made an honest attempt to respect the austerity of Robert Bolt’s 1960 bio-play, a stage paean to stalwart English lawgiver Sir Thomas More, the man who quietly refused to sanction Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and paid for his principles with his head. Most of us know the story from the 1966 Fred Zinnemann film adaptation starring Paul Scofield, who cemented More as a sixteenth-century Gandhi. Scofield’s creation was an intellectual whose faith in law—and the sanctified primacy of the individual—subsumed his faith in God, making him a medieval bridge to modern justice. (The coiner of the word Utopia, More has the distinction of being venerated by both Catholics and Marxists.) Hughes seems to accept all that, but with a twist: In the role of this holy icon of passive resistance, he casts go-to heavy and erstwhile Nixon Frank Langella—nobody’s idea of a saint.
This is where things ought to get interesting. Only they don’t. There are moments when Langella’s stentorian delivery and glittering inner rage begin to rewrite More as a kind of counter-tyrant—a tyrant of Self, consumed by his own ruthless integrity. And Hughes takes his own Hobbesian stabs at subverting the play’s humanist pieties: He drapes Langella in raven Ren garb straight out of a Ming the Merciless stoop sale, and seems to have cast the supporting players a head shorter—including the bipolar King Henry (Patrick Page). But the overall effect is comic: The Gandalfian Langella looks like he’s surrounded by hobbits.
Whether this crude visual effect was intentional or not, it underlines the play’s weaknesses: Bolt’s original script teeters on the brink of passion play already, and with Langella talking (literally) over everyone’s head—impressing all, connecting with none—we slip from restless moral dialectic into sleepy hagiography. Worthy scene partners are in short supply, and Langella’s More seems progressively self-consumed, but not in a way that gets any dramatic traction or adds a tragic dimension. He’s simply superior—with perhaps a hint of Lugosian vampirism. He certainly has no peer in the Peerage, as his bosom friend the Duke of Norfolk (a youthful-looking Michel Gill, who seems to have been aged, community-theater style, with gray shoe polish) comes off as a mere buffoon. The supporting cast is scenery at best, wet noodles and shriekers at worst. And throughout, accent problems bedevil almost everyone: It’s like listening to Madonna read Gibbon.
Langella, always a seismic presence, is torpid here, a low rumble of thunder that refuses to break and finally, shruggingly, just subsides. His best moment arrives in a comic interlude involving a surprise visit from the king: The household’s in a tizzy gussying up the joint, when More plods calmly in from Vespers, still in his humble cassock. Three people rush to dress him. “I’m a dowdy bird, aren’t I?” he says, with just a hint of sensual, carnivorous impishness. He looks, for a devilish second, like he’s saying, “Get me out of this diorama and into Richard the III!” Like he’d rather knock down that dumb Lincoln-Log Stonehenge of a set hemming him in and set the whole thing on fire. Maybe somebody should have let him.