Outdoing Shakespeare

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Paul Kolnik/Courtesy of Philip Rinaldi Publicity

Do not mess with Shakespeare’s heroines. From Juliet to Rosalind to Helena, they tend to be the most mature and well-spoken people in the room, not to mention the funniest. It’s Portia who outsmarts Shylock, Beatrice who matches wits with Benedick. Bringing such complex women to life demands depth of feeling, a light verse touch, and a crack sense of humor—not to mention the iron nerve to sign up for the gig in the first place.

As is becoming ever clearer, these are roles that Martha Plimpton was born to play. Her heartsick Helena was one of the best things in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Central Park earlier this year, and now her Imogen is the bright center of Lincoln Center’s Cymbeline. From the evidence so far, she’s not the new Streep, the all-conquering actress unlimited. (But then, who is?) She just has a rare and wonderfully welcome combination of personality and talent that makes it seem like Shakespeare wrote these parts for her.

Playing the lovelorn daughter of King Cymbeline (John Cullum), she shows off a voice that leaps from high and sweet to low and authoritative, so when she imagines seeing her unjustly banished husband (Michael Cerveris) recede over the horizon, “till the diminution / Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle, / Nay, follow’d him, till he had melted from / The smallness of a gnat to air,” the images float there before you. Later, when sleazy Iachimo (a terrific Jonathan Cake) tries to seduce her, Plimpton flashes outrage and then—if I’m not mistaken—a faint glimmer of attraction. Then, when she wails for the husband she thinks dead, Plimpton makes you share a pang of her sorrow.

I’d like to say that the rest of Mark Lamos’s production is up to her level, but that’s not entirely possible with this play. If Shakespeare’s tragedies are javelins, testing how far you can fling people into chaos and pain, his late romances, like this play and The Winter’s Tale, are boomerangs, in which the characters’ confusion and loss are magically reversed in improbable Act Five reunions. As happy endings go, Cymbeline may be the all-time happiest, so full of repaired families and reunited lovers that you’d need an awfully hard heart to watch it unmoved. The problem is getting to that point. Lamos gets the story’s epic reach, and shows a sharp eye for pretty lighting effects (compliments of the ingenious Brian MacDevitt). But the cast often fails to convince, in a story with too many fairy-tale twists to allow much room for disbelief.

As usually happens when somebody puts on this play—and for whatever reason, somebody is always putting on this play—I spent much of it wishing all these talented people were up to something more interesting. That’s true even of Plimpton, though we needn’t worry about her. With any luck, she’ll be getting her shot at Kate the Shrew soon enough.

For ten minutes or so, Will Eno blew my mind. In Oh, the Humanity, an evening of five short one-act plays, his characters try to muster words to convey their grief and anxiety, and generally fail. In the first and best scene, a Steve Carell–ish coach explains his losing season, using clichés of sports jargon that begin to take on new richness and despair. “I had no idea how hard hard was until this year came around. Nights, whole nights, weeks of nights, in a row,” says the excellent, befuddled Brian Hutchison, trailing off to an empty stare that makes you think you might be listening to Coach Beckett of the Dublin Misanthropes.

Though it’s a pleasure to see Marisa Tomei back onstage as an airline flack trying to explain a crash, Eno’s show has an unhelpful tendency to wander. As it wears on, he makes an ill-advised lurch from exploring how day-to-day speech masks and frustrates meaning, where he’s very good, to grappling with the cosmic everythingness of life and death, where he made me miss Thornton Wilder.

By William Shakespeare. Vivian Beaumont Theater. Through January 6.

Oh, the Humanity and Other Exclamations
By Will Eno. The Flea Theater. Through December 22.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.

Outdoing Shakespeare