Edward Sheehan's "Kingdoms," a chunk of bombast which opened last night at the Cort, resembles a Cecil B. DeMille epic that ran out of money after the principals, a few extras and some fancy costumes had been acquired. The story of the abduction of Pope Pius VII in an impetuous act by one of Napoleon's generals, and the pontiff's subsequent lengthy detention in France, it could at least have borrowed an old Erich Korngold background score.
Were it not for Roy Dotrice's patient, painstaking and occasionally even moving portrait of the Pope, we could simply laugh the whole silly thing off.
Full of heroic talk, numbing epigrams and grand gestures on the part of Napoleon, played by the stocky Armand Assante with more than sufficient swagger, it succeeds in covering most of the latter part of Napoleon's career, including the Russian mis-adventure, with a few brief summaries and allusions, shuffling up events in the process. The first half comes close to ending with the amorous emperor's rejection by the banished Josephine. (Not tonight, Napoleon.)
All right: Sheehan's intent is not to recreate the grand sweep of the mighty mite's career, though the interpolated references to the high and low spots are like bold punctuation marks, but rather to concentrate on the tricky Corsican and resolute Pope who has had the arrogant and unrepentant ruler excommunicated for defying church canon. But since the Pope is unyielding until almost the very last moment (doped by a quack doctor and subsisting on gruel and bananas, he seems in danger of expiring long before Napoleon makes it to St. Helena), there's really no contest, and hence no drama.
The author tries to establish a father-son relationship between the two, going so far as to have Nap address Pius as "papa," but even this doesn't work. The Little Corporal remains a cardboard figure throughout, and even so gifted an actress as Maria Tucci can do little with a capricious Josephine who flits in and out of the bewildering array of scenes spanning 10 years. As depicted here, Napoleon and Pius are not unlike a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the periphery of momentous events.
As the author admits in a program note, he has taken many liberties "for dramatic convenience." (Could they possibly extend to an inclusion of facts relating to Pius VI, who was whisked off to France by the French armies earlier on?) Yet for all his inventions, this work about the separate "kingdoms" of church and state and Napoleon's desire to have himself and the Pope rule the world from Paris is a static affair. Only Dotrice's Pontiff, impeccably set forth within the severe limitations of the trite script, touches us at all.
In a way, the most interesting role is that of a French cardinal ordained by Pius but willing to side with Napoleon in order to bolster the Catholic Church's position in France. George Morfogen is able to show us the character's hypocrisy without resorting to unctuousness.
Paul Giovanni has staged "Kingdoms" as if, indeed, he had a truly epic drama on his hands instead of a puny (in theatrical terms) quarrel.
Two and a half cheers for Edward Sheehan's fascinating play Kingdoms, which opened last night at the Cort Theater. Only two and a half? Having recently been faced with the porous bombast of a play such as Jules Feiffer's Grown Ups, it is tempting to welcome any seriously intentioned American Broadway drama with a demonstration of cap throwing rather than hat doffing. Yet caution must prevail.
Kingdoms is a sensitive, sensible historical drama that tries to dramatize the combat between the Kingdom of Heaven, and the worldly kingdom and kings and emperors - church vs. state, faith vs. politics.
To achieve his end Sheehan, a former foreign correspondent here dealing with his first produced play, has taken that celebrated moment in European history when, in 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte abducted the Pope from Rome and eventually incarcerated him, for many years under strict privation, at Fontainebleau. In return, the Pope excommunicates Napoleon and calls for the wrath of God to fall upon the Emperor's head.
The motives for mass domination, the mind, spirit and attitudes underlying a world tyrant are compulsively interesting. Caesar, Napoleon, yes, even Hitler, while monsters, still make us wonder how their larger than life lives actually ticked. And the division of power between church and state while hardly so lively an issue as it was in the time of Napolean, is perhaps even today, remembering the gambits of the self-styled Moral Majority, an issue not entirely dead.
Sheehan has locked into the ideal situation with which to make his dramatic points. Napolean, flamboyant yet at times almost boyishly human, the devout, but somewhat stuffy Pope Pius VII, and, just for luck, the worldly and wise Empress Josephine, make a trio of characters that any playwright would pawn his typewriter for.
Then there is this happily dramatic decline and fall in fortunes for both the Pope and the Emperor. They are men crushed by their own ambitions and ideals. Really all the playwright has to do is to describe and organize. It sounds easier than it looks.
There are many approaches possible. Peter Shaffer, for example, would have concentrated on the theme, Robert Bolt would have aimed more for the physical panoply of a court in ferment, while, in an earlier time, Shaw would have devised a playfully ironic dialectic.
What Sheehan does is to concentrate heavily on his three principal characters - and he paints their individual portraits with considerable skill. The larger theme is merely hinted at, and the play becomes more one of relationships than issues. This would have mattered less had the playwright not appeared to have offered more. At the end, in a sort of Shavian epilogue, Sheehan has to "tell the story after now."
The characters are splendid. Roy Dotrice as the Pope, passing between urbane saintliness to drained senility, finds one of this finest roles. It admirably exploits his subtlety over externals, and yet his impressive command over a complete character.
Maria Tucci has never been better than in her portrayal, sweet and acid, provocative yet sincere, of the Empress Josephine. Here is the very woman to enslave an Emperor, even such an emperor as Napoleon, willful, childlike and overweeningly ambitious.
But in any play about Napoleon, Napoleon is likely to have the most of the laughs, as it were. And so it turns out in Kingdoms - Napoleon dominates, if only because he is the man of decision and the man of destiny.
Armand Assante makes a charismatic Napoleon, who looks as though he has just jumped off his horse. Indeed at times he remarkably resembles the famous state portraits by David, and his charm, impetuosity, and crushing moments of black anger, are sharply conveyed.
Do three swallows make a summer? On the whole, yes. The costumes by Patricia Zipprodt and the simple, effective settings by David Hays, spawn spectacle out of the imagination, and, helped by the lighting by Paul Gallo, the Coronation Scene is a visual joy.
Much of the production's triumph must be accorded to Paul Giovanni, the director, who here scarcely gets a moment wrong, or an accent blurred. The large cast is drilled and deployed to look at times of almost Hollywood dimensions, and the play rides as smoothly as Napoleon's own Imperial Guard.
Kingdoms appears to be a play that has not achieved everything it set out to achieve. But it is literate, articulate, witty and one of those rare evenings in the theater that send you out thinking and trying to remember, rather than complaining and trying to forget. Very much worth seeing.
Edward Sheehan's ''Kingdoms,'' which opened at the Cort last night, has loftier ambitions than many Broadway plays. An account of the confrontation between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII, it wants to be a drama of ideas, of history, of larger-than-life emotions. But ambitions, however worthy, are meaningless if a writer can't deliver on them. The author of ''Kingdoms'' never comes close.
Mr. Sheehan is a novice playwright, and his inexperience is apparent everywhere in this painstaking, tedious effort. His episodic script is constructed like a dot-to-dot puzzle: it zigzags from predictable point to predictable point without ever providing a telling detail, a bit of shading or any depth. While ''Kingdoms'' might like to be ''A Man for All Seasons,'' ''The Royal Hunt of the Sun'' or ''Becket,'' it at best could pass for a parody of such plays. Indeed, as directed with leaden, empty pomp and circumstance by Paul Giovanni, ''Kingdoms'' sometimes does cross over the line into unintentional farce.
The story concerns Napoleon I's attempt to consolidate his power over Rome by holding Pius prisoner - first in Italy, then in France - during the years 1809-14. In this struggle between two headstrong, powerful men, Mr. Sheehan sees an archetypal battle between state and church, between temporal might and religious conscience. He also believes that, for all their fierce differences, Napoleon and Pius were in some ways blood brothers. This is established in the two men's first meeting in Paris in 1804, during which they immediately take to proclaiming that they have a father-son relationship. The bond is consummated when Napoleon (Armand Assante) grabs the Pontiff (Roy Dotrice) and kisses him on the mouth.
All of Mr. Sheehan's points - whether to establish character, plot or theme - are announced, not dramatized. And they're repeated over and over. Napoleon is forever marching forward to say ''I am the new Charlemagne'' or ''I am France'' or ''I am unique'' or ''I am the new Prometheus.'' Pius, meanwhile, never tires of telling us that he is the Emperor's opposite - a simple monk who's unwillingly come to power. ''We gaze at the stars and gasp,'' he tells his adversary. ''You jump up and try to grab them.''
Once its central issue is established, ''Kingdoms'' goes nowhere. Every confrontation is the same dialectical logjam until the very end, at which point the two now-chastened heroes reaffirm their mutual affection. The play's climactic payoff - the vindication of the Kingdom of God over the Kingdom of Man - always seems inevitable, and when it arrives, it's far from earthshaking. There is, however, a lot of padding along the way. During his cruel imprisonment, the Pope has a few banal mad scenes. The playwright also drags Josephine (Maria Tucci) on stage at odd moments, so that he can kill time by recounting the dissolution of Napoleon's first marriage.
There are some misbegotten flights of humor as well. In what appears to be an attempt to evoke ''Amadeus,'' Napoleon and Josephine start to roll amorously about the floor of their boudoir - only to be interrupted by the entrance of His Holiness. Worse still, Mr. Sheehan at first tries to make light of the Pope's chronic digestive ailments. ''A monk must mortify his flesh, but must he eat French food?'' asks Mr. Dotrice in the opening scene, before exclaiming, ''Ah, for a plate of pasta!'' The author's high-flown speeches are no better; they cry out to be delivered by Charlton Heston. Napoleon's teary final oration, in which he recounts his grueling retreat from Russia, seems a desperate last-ditch effort to transform ''Kingdoms'' into an antiwar play.
The action unfolds in a black void, designed by David Hays, that is somewhat enlivened by Patricia Zipprodt's costumes and Paul Gallo's lighting. It's impossible for actors to do much with declamatory roles that exist only on the surface, but it must be said that some of the supporting players, including two portentous Cardinals (George Morfogen and Thomas Barbour) and a burlesque quack doctor (Charles White), make a bad situation worse. So does Mr. Dotrice. This actor, a compelling protagonist in Hugh Leonard's ''A Life,'' is so inanimate and chilly in this play's first act that we never care, as we must, whether Pius rots in captivity or not. Wearing unkempt gray locks and ashen makeup for his Fontainebleau martyrdom of Act II, he often looks and acts like an extra in a provincial Christmas pageant.
Miss Tucci, who triumphed in ''A Lesson from Aloes'' last season, has little to do but deliver a few would-be scathing witticisms about Napoleon's mistresses. As written here, Josephine seems to have dropped in from a Noel Coward play, and the actress gamely fulfills the author's intentions. Mr. Assante, who was so effective as Goldie Hawn's putative fiance in the film ''Private Benjamin,'' is limited by the writing to a few familiar Napoleonic poses - idealism, arrogance, crude childishness - that he shuffles like cards in a deck. It's a noble effort, but it can't save ''Kingdoms'' from its inexorable slide toward a theatrical Waterloo.