Star Turns

Kevin Kline is Falstaff in the Lincoln Center production of Henry IV.Photo: Paul Kolnik

Let me say it flat out: Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Henry IV, the two parts shortened and fused, is the best American Shakespeare I have ever seen. As a purist, I miss the full texts spread over two evenings; as a realist, and even as a theater lover, I found Dakin Matthews’s compression canny, fluid, and thoroughly enjoyable. The essence is undamaged, the impact perhaps even greater. This is Shakespeare that even Shakespeare shunners must love.

First, Ralph Funicello’s set. As much towering architecture as scenery, it conveys more than a stage (even this giant one): a world. Large movable pieces configure and reconfigure themselves into entirely new vistas, apt and evocative, flowing smoothly into one another, accompanied by Mark Bennett’s outstanding music and sound, to which they seem almost to dance. Then, what wonders from that supreme lighting designer, Brian MacDevitt, whose lights go beyond dramatic efficacy and psychological veracity, extending the space they illuminate into an infinity made palpable. Add Jess Goldstein’s stunning costumes that manage to be both realistic and poetic, and you are immersed in a dreamscape as specific and manifold, as intimate and universal as Shakespeare’s matchless dramatic poetry.

And how thaumaturgically Jack O’Brien has directed! Everywhere you attend there are masterly touches, ranging from the microscopic to the all-encompassing, such as you have never seen before, could not have imagined, and are magically caught up in. There is movement where other directors give you stasis, yet it never obstructs the words; there is highlighting that never spills into obviousness. Nothing spoken is lost in sloppy or monotonous or overemphatic diction; you may miss the music of British English, but you get American at its most disciplined and communicative. All this from a director who can do similar wonders at the other end of the spectrum with Hairspray. Even the battle scenes, usually problematic, come off magnificently, thanks to all of the above plus Steve Rankin’s fights and Gregory Meeh’s special effects—better than special, unique.

What acting, too, from a large but beautifully integrated (in both senses) cast. On short notice, Michael Hayden has come up with a Prince Hal warmly believable in all his chameleonic aspects; Ethan Hawke’s Hotspur, though roughly four centuries ahead of his time, is a compelling, ardent creation. Richard Easton’s King Henry, perhaps just short of some ultimate refinement, is more than adequate, ditto Dana Ivey’s Mistress Quickly. Jeff Weiss has infectious fun with Justice Shallow, and Steve Rankin is the best Poins yet. Even in the smaller parts—Genevieve Elam’s Doll Tearsheet, Byron Jennings’s Worcester, Anastasia Barzee’s Lady Mortimer, Peter Jay Fernandez’s Vernon, to name but a few—we get glistening cameos. Only Audra McDonald, as Lady Percy, is painfully miscast.

Falstaff, the archetypal braggart, poltroon, toper and talker, wit and source of wit in others, is usually a figure larger than life. Kevin Kline—giving us the most restrained yet unforgettable Falstaff—makes him only life-size, or Kline-size, and it works: Instead of a merry, monumental lumberer, we get a graceful, wistful tergiversator, worth in itself the price of admission. The cost of missing out on this Henry IV is incalculable. This has to be seen; to slightly rephrase Hal in his next play, Henry V, “And gentlefolk in New York now abed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.”

Both “Oh, boy!” and “By George!” apply to the musical Taboo, partly by and partly about Boy George. The former outcry, in exasperation, is for having to sit through it; the latter, in partial recognition, is for good tunes, despite wretchedly repetitive lyrics, and for some winning performances. Still, unless you are a Boy George fan or a freak-show fancier, you’ll find the pickings as slim as the slender thread trying to hold together the disparate halves of Charles Busch’s revised book, based on Mark Davies’s original. This is a dichotomous story: of Boy George and of Leigh Bowery, an Australian who went to London, became a designer and performance artist, outlandish dresser and fixture of the club scene, notably the club Taboo. He died of AIDS at age 33 in 1994.

Outrageousness was Bowery’s specialty, as it was George’s (real name O’Dowd), and the show suffers from bifurcation into discrete, but not all that different, protagonists. That Boy George is played by Euan Morton (believably), and Leigh Bowery by Boy George (unbelievably), adds confusion. Moreover, an equally outré pal of theirs, Philip Sallon, is played so dazzlingly by Raúl Esparza as to steal scenes from both of them, further blurring the focus. Two women also score: Liz McCartney as Big Sue, Leigh’s portly, unflappable chum, and Sarah Uriarte Berry, as Nicola, Leigh’s small, improbably devoted wife.

A major minus is that George O’Dowd, prematurely aged at 42, is overstuffed and unprepossessing, and, though still able to sing, unable to act. As a rival transvestite, Marilyn, and George’s off-and-on lover, Marcus, Jeffrey Carlson and Cary Shields are passable. Properly creepy is the chorus of misfits in costumes barely less freakish than the principals’; no wonder it took two designers to dream them up. Less explicable are the two “music co-writers” for Boy George; for this music, one writer should have been enough. Tim Goodchild’s set is aptly tawdry; Natasha Katz’s lighting suitably glitzy. Christopher Renshaw’s direction is proficient; only, as in most recent musicals, the choreography (by Mark Dendy) is pedestrian.

The book sporadically manages to be amusingly catty, but never, try as it may, moving. Now if you stand in the right place on 45th Street, you’ll have on your right The Boy From Oz, a musical about a gay Aussie, on your left Taboo, a musical partly about a gay Aussie, neither a winner. But only Taboo will steep you in a Hamletic quandary: Ta boo or not ta boo, that is the question.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning play Anna in the Tropics is a marked improvement over the Cuban-American Nilo Cruz’s previous efforts, although that is not saying very much. It is about Cuban transplants to Florida running or working in a Tampa cigar factory in 1929. Such workers had a lector reading aloud to them from a usually romantic novel, making their tasks less tedious. In this factory, the dashing new lector is reading Anna Karenina, excerpts from which constitute an appreciable part of the play. Whatever can be said about Cruz as a playwright, he does know how to pick a collaborator.

Santiago, the factory owner, is a likable but compulsive gambler; his wife, Ofelia, is a charming, plucky woman of good sense. Conchita, their elder daughter, is married to the prosaic Palomo, who cheats on her; the younger daughter, Marela, is an excitable, unabashed dreamer. The new lector, Juan Julian, a heartthrob, is beloved of all women, especially Conchita, who becomes a cheater for him. Real trouble comes from the hard-nosed Cheché, illegitimate son of Santiago’s father by a Yankee woman, who covets more shares in the factory, wants to introduce machines, and hates lectors, because the last one ran off with his wife.

The situation is fraught and sweaty, although Tampa isn’t quite in the tropics, and the production is short on even subtropical heat. Cruz’s pseudo-poetic language (e.g., Ofelia’s “Men marry their cigars … and the white smoke becomes the veil of their brides”) taxes our patience, especially in the somewhat exaggerated Hispanic accents that clash with the overliterary English.

Emily Mann’s direction is merely carne y patatas, and the performances are uneven. Jimmy Smits does well by the lector, and Priscilla Lopez is an endearing Ofelia. But the gushy Marela of Vanessa Aspillaga is way over-the-top, and the listless, gray-voiced Conchita of Daphne Rubin-Vega is too near the bottom. John Ortiz gets the befuddled Palomo right; Victor Argo (Santiago) and David Zayas (Cheché) suffice.

A famous alleged schoolboy boner runs, “A pullet surprise is given in America every year for the best writings.” Anna has no more claim to poultry than to poetry, but the ending offers a putative bullet surprise, which, heavily foreshadowed, proves unsurprising, as does the affirmative- action Pulitzer bestowed on the play.

Henry IV
Tues.-Sat. at 7pm, Sun. at 2pm. Through 1/11/04. Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 212-307-7171.

Plymouth Theater, 236 W. 45th, 212-239-6200.

Anna in the Tropics
Tues.-Sat. at 8pm, Sat. at 2pm and and 8pm, Sun. at 3pm. Royale Theater, 242 W. 45th, 212-239-6200.

Star Turns