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A CurtainUp Review
The Lion in Winter

by Les Gutman

What family doesn't have its ups and downs?
-- Eleanor of Aquitane, via James Goldman
In the broad category of stories about family squabbles at Christmas, James Goldman's The Lion in Winter certainly has the highest stakes. When the family business is running the British empire, and the sons are maneuvering for power, the question of who's going to do the dishes fades into the ornate woodwork.
We can count at least ten children of Henry II (Laurence Fishburne) and Eleanor of Aquitane (Stockard Channing), but The Lion in Winter considers only three of their sons, two of whom we will get to know much better as kings: Richard Coeur de Lion (Chuma Hunter-Gault) and John (Keith Nobbs), who will go on to grant the Magna Carta. The third brother, Geoffrey (Neal Huff), will fade into obscurity. Christmas 1183 is not one any of them will likely forget. Nor will we.

James Goldman's play (far better known for the 1968 film it spawned) is notable not only for the terrain it dares to traverse, but also for the imaginative way in which it does it. When one dramatizes the lives of Plantagenet kings one is treading in Shakespeare's realm. (Indeed, Shakespeare's King John deals with this John and his mother in the aftermath of this Richard's reign, during which the also-then-dead Geoffrey's young son is deprived of his rightful throne.) But Goldman's language is his own, and one key to its success is its ability to ground these royals in a contemporary sensibility without losing their stateliness. The play recognizes the monumental importance of these goings-on, but never loses sight of the intensely personal, familial forces that are at play -- feelings which play out in lesser households all the time.

Having sustained the transition from medieval time to the 1960's, a threshold question is whether Goldman's dialogue can remain fresh in the transition from the sixties to the late 1990's. Aided immeasurably by Michael Mayer's painstaking direction, the play remains fiercely alive.

Mayer returns to the venue of both his excellent revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and the exciting new play Side Man, and again finds a way to coil the raw electricity of passion around a sense of irony. Here this is an especially delicate arrangement on which a director could easily trip. Taking Lion seriously would be as ridiculous as dismissing it as a pure farce. This is a play in which one of the most memorable questions is, "what shall we hang, the holly or each other?" Mayer zeroes in on the cynical absurdist-tragic edge. And he has cast the production with this in mind.

Whereas the film version is populated with actors we are inclined to take seriously (Peter O'Toole had already established himself as Henry II in Becket), Mayer skips such pretensions. Neither Laurence Fishburne nor Stockard Channing come to mind when one conjures up images of monarchs, yet both fit Mayer's smart concept.

Fishburne has all of the stage presence and voice one could ever ask of a lion king. And yet, beneath the vestigial prance and roar he harbors the anguish of a man who is tired -- going through the paces of reigning by instinct, wielding power as a matter of ceremony. "I've snapped and plotted all my life. There's no other way to be alive, king, and fifty all at once," he says. Now he wants to make love, not war, but that does not mean he is loosening his grip on power.

This is a triple-barreled assault on his scheming queen (who he has had under lock and key for ten years). He wants an annulment; he wants her favorite soldier son, Richard, passed over in favor of his spoiled but certainly not war-mongering pet, John AND he wants to solidify his control over the brother of his lover, Alais (Emily Bergl), who happens to be Philip, the king of France (Roger Howarth).

Channing is, for me, a complete surprise. At once regal and hilarious, she plays the caged lioness to perfection. Although it is sometimes possible to close your eyes and hear Hepburn, Channing gives the role her own stamp. The raw bite of her epigrammatic dialogue is reason enough to applaud this performance. But she digs deeper, and constructs a penetrating foundation for the dysfuctionality of this family, even on its rarefied plateau.

Mayer's take on the younger generation suggests a millennial rethinking of television's My Three Sons. Hunter-Gault's Richard is a walking fortress. Behind the gruff, bellicose facade is a deep, dark secret (his homosexuality), that would have played almost as differently in 1965 as it would in 1183. As the enigmatic strategist Geoffrey, Huff is more than adequate if not especially memorable. The most interesting of the sons is John, played here as a real-time teenager by Keith Nobbs, who was plucked from a similar characterization in Mayer's Stupid Kids. It's an apt reading of what it's like to grow up with a palace as a playground. Both Bergl and Howarth fall in the fine but not remarkable category.

Mayer's design team from A View from the Bridge returns intact. David Gallo's set, in particular, impresses. As in the prior work, it focuses on a single forceful element -- here an arc of enormous columns -- embellished only modestly to make sense of each scene: a chair or two, a table or bed and some tapestries, one of which becomes very important. A chain mail curtain concealing a secondary playing area also adds a bit of abstract authenticity.

Goldman's play should not be confused with any masterwork on medieval history. But it isn't a parody either. In the capable hands of Michael Mayer, it is at once affecting and entertaining. A final note, if I am allowed: I've only seen the movie once, and that was in April of 1969. My companions the night I saw this revival watch the videotape of the film regularly as a family "event". They felt that this production measured up to the award-winning film admirably.

View From the Bridge
Side Man
Stupid Kids

by James Goldman 
Directed by Michael Mayer 
starring Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing with Emily Bergl, Roger Howarth, Neal Huff, Chuma Hunter-Gault, Keith Nobbs and three others 
Set design: David Gallo 
Lighting design: Kenneth Posner 
Costume design: Michael Krass 
Sound design: Mark Bennett 
Roundabout Theatre, 1530 Broadway (@45th Street) (212) 719 - 1300 
2/17/99-5/30/99 (the Roundabout's lease on 45th Street expires on this closing date); opened 3/11/99.
Reviewed by Les Gutman

©Copyright March 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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