From the title, "Shakespeare for My Father," you might imagine Lynn Redgrave's one-person show were an evening of Shakespeare recitation. I would not have minded such a thing, but I'm aware that it is not universally enticing.
In fact, "Shakespeare for My Father" is far more. Redgrave explores her tricky relationship with her celebrated father. Michael, one of the great Shakespeare actors of his time, but a distant, often unthinkingly cruel father.
The terrain on which they met was Shakespeare. As she puts it: "I somehow felt that if I could get onto the stage with the characters that my father played, then I would know him." Many of the scenes she does comment on their relationship, or, as in a particularly moving speech from "Richard II," on a sad moment in his life.
Shakespeare, then, is a chorus rather than the central figure in this elegantly written and acted memoir. In addition to describing her resolutely theatrical family over several generations, Redgrave recalls some of the more amusing moments in her own career, including a backstage meeting with Richard Burton and a hilarious rehearsal scene with Noel Coward, Edith Evans and Maggie Smith, the last of whom Redgrave imitates scathingly well.
She also imitates her father's friend - and rival - Laurence Olivier. Though the imitation is not convincing, the resentment behind it is clear and comprehensible.
Redgrave is expectedly eloquent as an interpreter of Shakespeare, particularly as Cleopatra. Obviously, she tells her own anecdotes with relish. But some of the most thrilling moments of this deeply impressive evening are quiet, like one in which, with arms upraised, she evokes all that used to be meant by the term "Shakespearean actor."
At a time when the theater is becoming increasingly adolescent and mindless, Redgrave's moving tribute to her father is a tonic for despair.
Theater quiz: Can you name the most famous - well, certainly the largest - Anglo-American stage family? If you said the Redgrave/Richardson clan, I think you'd be just about right.
Although that great Shakespearean actor, film star, etc. etc., Sir Michael Redgrave (1908-85) is generally regarded as its patriarch, in fact his own parents Roy Redgrave and Margaret Scudamore, and many of his relatives, were actors.
This thespian tribe has roots in a now long lost theatrical past - Roy, for example, died young in Australia - and already Michael and his wife Rachel Kempson's children, Vanessa, Corin and Lynn are now an elder Redgrave generation, with such celebrated sprigs as Natasha Richardson (Vanessa's daughter) maintaining the family business.
Last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, the youngest of Sir Michael's children, Lynn, set out on a biographical voyage round her father, a one-woman show she calls "Shakespeare for My Father."
Looking for parents can be the occupation of a lifetime - they can be fugitive things, particularly, I imagine, when they are famous or otherwise intimidating. And Lynn's father was very famous, and his friends were very famous, and his life was very famous.
So famous, so self-involved, that when Lynn was born and Michael was playing in "A Month in the Country" with Valerie Taylor at London's old St. James Theater in 1943 - I happen to remember the production quite well - he didn't even have the space, or perhaps the interest, to mention her fact in his diary entry for the day!
Now, eight years after his death from Parkinson's disease, Lynn is making this public search in a mixture of memory, anecdotage and excerpts from Shakespeare.
She doesn't tell anything like all - this is no "Daddy Dearest," and some of the more piquant elements of Sir Michael's life (his sexuality, for example, which must surely have affected his family) are glossed over.
Yet a portrait of the great actor - rather different from that to be found in his handsomely written and sleek 1983 autobiography "In My Mind's I" - does emerge, as does his somewhat Lear/Cordelia relationship with Lynn.
And the show is enormously entertaining. She handles her always apt Shakespearean excerpts with a virtuosity that reminds one that her father was once a pioneer in this kind of anthology-recital, and her anecdotes are hilarious.
The story, for example, of Noel Coward rehearsing Lynn, Maggie Smith and Dame Edith Evans (one of the great loves of Sir Michael's life) in "Hay Fever" is absolutely beautiful.
And at the end of the journey towards her father - with the family in distress, and the once impregnable chameleon reduced to his own aged colors - she finds her own feelings for him, and their shy love for one another.
A lost child is found - highly Shakespearean, although by that time, as Lynn notes, who is the child and who the parent might be anyone's guess.
Yet, however famous your father is, the final rites of passage are the same - and it is here, in this deft staging by Redgraves's husband, John Clark, and dominated by a photo of Sir Michael as Antony, that the daughter touches a chord of loneliness which is the common plainsong of loss.
When it comes to theatrical dynasties, the Redgraves share a stage with the Kembles and the Barrymores. The center of the family was Sir Michael Redgrave, son of an actor and an actress and the progenitor of an ensemble of talented actors and actresses. His younger daughter, Lynn Redgrave, tells the Redgrave story in "Shakespeare for My Father" at the Helen Hayes Theater. This one-woman show is a revealing and often rueful account of life without father in a stagestruck family.
During Ms. Redgrave's childhood, her parents were often absent, away on tour or, in the case of her father, at home working obsessively on his next role. The paternal slights were many, beginning with the fact that Redgrave failed to mention Lynn's birth in his journal. More attention was paid to her outgoing older siblings Vanessa and Corin. In family photographs, she says, she is "the glum one." Against odds and without parental encouragement, she became a star in her own right.
Underneath this highly personalized, occasionally self-indulgent monologue, there is a darker tale about a daughter's feeling of abandonment. Standing onstage under a portrait of her handsome father, she repeatedly indicates that she forgives him. Clearly she has not forgotten his neglect, and her reminiscences are most searching when they are self-analytical rather than simply conversational.
With empathy, she discusses her father's own insecurity, as signified by his recurrent actor's nightmare. About to go on stage, made up in character, he suddenly feels that his makeup is sliding from his face like lava and taking his features along with it. His daughter talks about rushing backstage after performances to catch King Lear or Richard II before he turned back into her elusive father.
Through his many triumphs at the Old Vic and Stratford-on-Avon, Redgrave became a knight of English acting and a close rival of Laurence Olivier. The two worked together only on rare occasions, in "Hamlet" and in the historic production of "Uncle Vanya," which starred Redgrave in the title role and Olivier as Astrov. For Redgrave, as for those of us who saw it, "Uncle Vanya" was a pinnacle of his career.
In trying to recreate significant moments in the careers of father and daughter, Ms. Redgrave overtaxes herself, playing both male and female roles of all ages, the Nurse as well as Juliet, Lear as well as Cordelia. She is also off the mark in her attempts at mimicry, with the exception of a brief imitation of Maggie Smith. Ms. Redgrave is most persuasive with roles like Viola and Portia and, in an entirely different mode, as a television journalist in her current Masterpiece Theater mini-series, "Calling the Shots."
In its uneasy amalgam of recollections and scenes from Shakespeare, her memoir-as-play needs shaping, and it would benefit from a more focused production than it receives under the direction of John Clark (Ms. Redgrave's husband and the show's producer and director). The most noticeable property on stage is a theatrical trunk. Ms. Redgrave rummages through it as she does her life, with a rambling sense of purpose. As a performer, she spends too much time on unnecessary stage business.
When she plays herself in her one-woman show, she creates a portrait of an intuitive survivor and offers an insightful perspective on her family history, as in her comments on her grandfather, Roy Redgrave. His granddaughter, who never met him, found his unmarked grave in Australia and then went along with her father's suggestion for a tombstone with a one-word epitaph: Actor. She deals glancingly but tellingly with her siblings, winning a hearty laugh with a comment about her sister's penchant for politics.
The play achieves a poignancy near the end of the evening, when she talks about her father, afflicted with Parkinson's disease and bravely trying to prolong his career. She recalls his last, almost silent role in Simon Gray's "Close of Play" at Britain's National Theater, and a late supper the two of them had at the Savoy Grill after a performance. As Redgrave entered the restaurant, the other diners stood and applauded.
In a coda, Ms. Redgrave describes her last visit to her father, who was in a hospital bed surrounded by a curtain. His mind failing, he thought the curtain was in a theater and his bed was a stage. Peering out at his daughter, he asked her, "How's the house?" It was a moment that made her banish the "fear and pain" she felt whenever she faced her father, and it gave her an answer to her perennial question, "Who are you, Dad?" Like his father, he was, of course, an actor, first and last.
The Broadway stage makes a fitting arena for Lynn Redgrave's memoir-as-theater, "Shakespeare for My Father."
Pulling back the curtain on her famous thespian family, the engaging actress offers a glimpse of life in the rarefied company of Olivier, Burton, Lunt & Fontanne, sister Vanessa and brother Corin.
But as the title indicates, Lynn shares center stage with the ghost of her father, Sir Michael Redgrave, and her reminiscences, by turns funny, poignant and melodramatic, struggle to find peace with a difficult and withholding man who apparently showed emotion only when a script demanded.
Redgrave takes on the roles of those who populate her drama, from family members to Noel Coward and Dame Edith Evans, and intersperses nearly 20 apropos passages from Shakespeare. Her Bard seems solid enough, and her impersonations are constantly amusing if not always accurate in their mimicry.
The actress' professionalism is to be expected, but what surprises is the easy charm with which she leads the audience through this occasionally rambling trip down memory lane. Irreverent, homey, and playing off the audience's knowledge of her family -- nearly every reference to Vanessa gets a knowing laugh -- Redgrave manages to make her revered clan as familiar as next-door neighbors.
But while the universality of her uneasy relationship with Dad provides some resonance, it also breeds a familiarity that occasionally gives the performance a by-the-numbers pop psych feel.
And her solution to the mystery of the man is too easy: He was, first and always, an actor, with all else secondary.
Nor does Redgrave delve too deeply into Sir Michael's troubled personality. The actress seems unwilling to engage in the type of probing that would transform an entertaining but only moderately insightful remembrance into something potentially more rewarding but almost certainly less tidy.
Redgrave is at her riotous best when reenacting an early 1960s rehearsal of the National Theater troupe, her Noel Coward skillfully manipulating a temperamental Dame Edith as a daffy Maggie Smith looks on. While Redgrave-the-writer could use a tighter editorial hand, she and her director-husband John Clark show a knack for offsetting the familial melodrama with these lighter moments.
At the Helen Hayes Theater, Redgrave shows no remnants of the self-described glum, painfully shy child overshadowed by the brilliance of her father and the strength of her sister. The production may lack a certain psychological ambition , but it argues convincingly for Lynn's status as a Redgrave.