Almost by its very nature, "Edmund Kean" is bound to fall short. For Raymond Fitzsimons' solo play, starring Ben Kingsley, which came to the Atkinson last evening, requires of its leading actor not merely the ability to perform Shakespeare, but to transcend him.
Kingsley, whose name is joined to Kean's in bold type on the program's title page as if they were one and the same, is an accomplished actor. But while he is rarely less than entertaining in this one-man show, which comes to us following a successful London engagement, he does not command the role, the stage or the audience with the bravura called for.
As Kingsley, with numerous costume adjustments, describes the career of the great early 19th-century Shakespearean actor whose reckless boozing and womanizing led to his death at 46, he lards the account with great swatches of Shakespeare. And although his readings, except in one or two questionable instances, are interesting and sometimes compelling, they never truly soar (as, for example, John Gielgud's did in his "Ages of Man" recital), and must always lapse into what is, without the genuine Kean actually before us, a rather routine and far from stimulating account of the rise and fall of a stage star. Though Kean on stage must have been an awesome figure, which Kingsley is not, his offstage behavior followed an all-too-familiar course of a sort that has served the stage, screen and TV ad nauseam.
Fitzsimmons, in his haste to intersperse the highlights and lowlights of the career with Shakespearean soliloquies, has provided no insights into the real man. As a result, we have a rather shoddy show given moments of dignity by some fine borrowed speeches. And with all Kean's fussing and fuming with provincial managers and eventually the Drury Lane management, no time has been allowed even for a reference to Kean's American visits.
Moving from clothes rack to dressing table, and almost always clutching and pouring from bottles of brandy hauled from a large wicker hamper, Kingsley is, as I have already indicated, graceful, accomplished, and enjoyable enough for the better part of two hours (there is an intermission). But his descriptions of his home life (he was married to a steadfast woman who bore him two sons, one of whom died at age 4) and his wild carryings-on away from home, most notably his long affair with the wife of a Drury Lane board member, seem oddly impersonal.
We don't really care much about Kean off the stage, and on the stage he lacks the thrust and sorcery - in Kingsley's performance, that is - with which the true article must have transported his listeners.
Alison Sutcliffe (Mrs. Kingsley) has staged the evening buoyantly enough. Indeed, I think I enjoyed the scenes of Kean's early days when, skipping and dancing about, he was rarely called upon by provincial managers to play anything other than Harlequin. These frolicsome flights are, of course, recalled in the actor's last days as the evenings ends up in a somewhat maudlin way.
One of Kingsley's greatest deficiencies for this sort of thing is his voice, which, while expressively used, lacks the body and richness to move us on its own.
Along with the direction, the simple but atmospheric setting, the interesting lighting effects, and the clever bits of choreography (the latter by courtesy of Cleone Rive) are perfect for the occasion in their own way. All that is missing is Kean.
Would Edmund Kean have played Ben Kingsley? Somehow I doubt it - and this is the inbuilt fallibility of Kingsley's one-man show at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, Edmund Kean, written expressly for him by Raymund FitzSimons. And it is a play - not merely a card-house of characterization, or a pit of mimickry.
But mimicking comes into it. Kingsley is one of the most remarkable actors of our time - at least, our decade. I have watched his career with wonderment for years. By chance - which will soon be remedied - I have yet to see his Oscar-winning portrayal in Gandhi. I did notice recently when I was in Bombay it provoked lines around the theater that New York could scarcely envisage. A star, then.
A lovely actor. A superlative actor. But Kean? He looks like Kean, just as, I noticed from photographs he looked like Gandhi. And he does have that genius in acting that suggests there will be no more tomorrows - or tomorrows, or tomorrows - the petty pace of his range is terrific.
His Demetrius in Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream, for me, redefined a role. His Squeers in Nicholas Nickelby (not seen in the Royal Shakespeare Company's N.Y. version) was acting at the edge of existence.
From the first time he came on stage - well, OK, the 17th, it has been evident that Kingsley was an actor not just of moment but of mark. Everything he ever did, quite unaffectedly, had its own following spot of starlight.
The man was destined to be one of the few chosen classic actors of his generation. He is terrific as Kean - but Kean himself would have been better. Mind you, Kean himself would not have been messing around with such a peurile script.
The premise of the play itself is peculiar. We seem to be making some backstage visit with Kean - almost an interview. He tells us about his life and career. The situation itself is somewhat off-beat. It trembles.
There have been plays on Kean before - notably Sartre's Kean, his finest dramatic work, which has yet to be seen in New York. The late Alan Badel in London and Keith Baxter in its American premiere in Hartford, were both magnificent. Kingsley would have been just as good - at least.
But here he is locked into a very crass script. There are, at least, many quotations from Shakespeare. Indeed, compared with FitzSimons, Shakespeare undoubtedly had the best of the night.
There were concepts here in the play that were fascinating. For example, we have a speech from Othello repeated, more or less, three times.
First it is spoken by the neophyte actor, trippingly and nervously on the tongue, then it is given in full flight and unaffected authority, finally, in its third time round, it has an overblown quality of decadence.
This, subtly, Kingsley desperately searching for the words to match his image, makes the most of. And his director, Alison Sutcliffe also knowing where art comes from, encourages him magnificently.
Good decor by Martin Tilley, svelte lighting by John Watt - everything that could be done for Kingsley and Kean has been done. But nothing entirely works.
For heavens' sake I am grateful to have seen it. I am happy to have seen Kingsley try to poise his acting style between Kemble and Macready. I happen to be fond of the area.
Can you believe what Coleridge said of Kean: "Seeing him act was like seeing Shakespeare by flashes of lightning."
Kean, at least by reputation, is a tough act to follow. But there is something about Kingsley that is adorable.
When he forgets the weight of impersonation and becomes an actor simply in taunting wonderment at his success, he is absolutely lovely.
Bottom Line. Last Paragraph. Should you see Edmund Kean? Emphatically, yes. Kingsley has a style of genius.
Another answer to my very first question: "Would Edmund Kean ever have played Ben Kingsley?"
Well, if the price was right, and the booze and the girls were there, he might have done it. And there is not one time when Kingsley - cheeky, naughty and absurd - disgraces his memory.
Kingsley has the makings of a great classic actor. For his own sake I suggest he stay away from parodies. For your sake, I suggest you see him while he's hot.
There's no reason to fear that Hollywood's Oscar-night canonization has turned Ben Kingsley's head. In ''Edmund Kean,'' the one-man show Mr. Kingsley has brought to the Brooks Atkinson, this actor refuses to behave like a Star - even though his role, that of the legendary early 19th-century tragedian and scoundrel, gives him every license to do so.
Mr. Kingsley instead remains what he has been since first emerging at the Royal Shakespeare Company over a decade ago: an actor of quick intelligence and self-effacing humor who, in sharp contrast to some of his British peers, seems incapable of turning a performance into a mannered exercise in technique.
Always valuing his art more than his own ego, Mr. Kingsley also has an exceptional ability to work between the lines. No wonder he proved a consummate Pinter player in the film of ''Betrayal'': he grabbed onto the subtext with the tenacity of a mad pup, carving high drama out of silences and monosyllables. But even if a writer provides no subtext, this actor will, rather astonishingly, find his own. Though there's hardly a scene in ''Gandhi'' that presents its hero as much more than a plaster saint, Mr. Kingsley created a quirky, complex man who bled right out of that film's immaculate frames and into our consciousness.
In ''Edmund Kean,'' this actor undertakes a similar chore - and he executes it as well as anyone could. As a portrait of Kean, or as a satisfying theater piece of any kind, Raymund FitzSimons's script is perilously weak. But Mr. Kingsley turns nearly every worthwhile moment into a passionate image haunted by a character larger than the one in the text.
That the evening gathers little cumulative power is an indication of just how scattered the play is. Not only are Mr. Kingsley's juicier turns separated by dry spells of prosaic exposition but they're also distributed among a whole gallery of cameo-sized characters: toy versions of the Shakespearean roles Kean played, as well as of Kean himself. Coleridge said that watching Kean act was like ''reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.'' Watching Mr. Kingsley in ''Edmund Kean,'' we also see flashes of lightning - but there can be too much quiet before and after the storms.
With his flowing velvet robes, swords and scarves, the curly-maned actor looks a lot like the Kean of portraiture. His supple voice, however, is not the high-pitched screech often attributed to the star of Drury Lane, and it's hard to imagine Mr. Kingsley's Kean inducing audiences to riot or throwing his good friend Lord Byron into convulsive fits. But perhaps if Kean's full-throttle acting style were exhumed from the grave today, it would look ridiculous. What we do get is a flickering slide-show of the private Kean's attributes: his Napoleonic megalomania, his paranoia and self-pity, his self-destructive appetites for booze and whores. If this isn't quite the robustly romantic or comic Keans of the plays of Dumas and Sartre, it can pass for a rough Dickensian sketch of O'Neill's James Tyrone.
As resourcefully directed by Alison Sutcliffe, ''Edmund Kean'' unfolds in a musty, heavily draped dressing room that John Watt's inventive lighting can instantly turn into a footlit Regency stage. In the first and better act, Mr. Kingsley narrates Kean's long and embittering tutelage in the ''wilderness'' of provincial theater. Wanting only to ''interpret the heroes of Shakespeare as he himself saw them,'' Kean must instead play Harlequin in tawdry pantomimes, at starvation wages.
It's a sad spectacle. As Mr. Kingsley dons Harlequin's motley jacket and lifts a tambourine to perform a jerky jack-in-a-box's jig, his embalmed grin fully suggests the degradation the ostensibly merry role inflicts on his artistic soul. Soon he is fiddling absently with the lid of his props box, bringing tremulous guilt and grief to the bare lines that describe the death of his 4-year-old son.
There are some laughs, too. Kean ridicules the ''sculptured attitudes'' of his rival John Philip Kemble, puckishly contrasting their respective Hamlets. Once Kean belatedly takes his London throne as the self-decreed ''monarch of the English stage,'' he glories in his despotic rule. In Act II, he rejects new scripts in which the lead role is upstaged by ''too many people'' having ''too much to say.'' By then, Mr. Kingsley really does become a snarling, vainglorious matinee idol - not unlike the breed he might have encountered in Hollywood. Yet Mr. FitzSimons is less interested in integrating Kean's neuroses into a coherent characterization than in yanking Mr. Kingsley from one Shakespearean interpolation to the next. Some of the transitions are absurdly literal-minded - Kean's mistress is, ipso facto, Desdemona - and the whole device is dubious. Unlike, say, John Gielgud or Ian McKellen in their one-man Shakespeare recitations, Mr. Kingsley often must jump in and out of two-minute excerpts that begin at full emotional blast. The great soliloquies weren't designed to be performed as a medley of show-stoppers.
Under the circumstances, Mr. Kingsley can be surprisingly effective - especially with his hypnotic, crazed Richard III and a Shylock that fulfills Hazlitt's observation that Kean's range encompassed more notes of pain than of ''joy or hope or love.'' The splinters of Hamlet and Macbeth, among others, make less of an impression. The recurrent Othello, performed with variations to graph Kean's changing fortunes, ultimately pays off in a spectral, basso profundo display of inner collapse. (Though surely Mr. Kingsley was in fact born to play Iago.)
When the evening becomes tedious and confusing in Act II, that's because we can't care about Kean's own tragedies. The tale of the actor's decline into scandal, debt and alcoholism flies by with a speed and superficiality that defy even Mr. Kingsley's ability to add flesh; the absence of onstage embodiments of Kean's wife, mistress and enemies takes a harsh toll. Only at the very end do the fragments pull together: Mr. Kingsley almost miraculously remakes himself into the fever-eyed, shrunken, brandy-pickled dodderer who collapses into his death throes in mid-performance.
But even then, we feel tantalized, not satiated. After seeing ''Edmund Kean,'' we are mainly left longing to watch Mr. Kingsley play Richard or Shylock for keeps on a New York stage - in their entirety and, in all likelihood from the impressive evidence here, just as Shakespeare himself saw them.