Some actors were born to play Cyrano - which is why Edmond Rostand's creaky melodrama, "Cyrano de Bergerac," has kept a toehold in the classic repertory for 110 years.
This saga of 1640 war-torn Paris - with its crazy kind of poetry, energy and a flamboyant title role to die for - has been the source of an opera, a ballet, a Broadway musical and more than a few movies (the best with Gerard Depardieu).
The latest actor to claim his Cyrano birthright is Kevin Kline, whose particular birth certificate had been clear ever since he played his Errol Flynn-style Pirate King in Joe Papp's "The Pirates of Penzance."
In the "Cyrano" that opened last night, Kline dishes out panache, clashes swords, flashes wicked grins and, finally, dampens hankies with the best of them. But there is more to Cyrano than braggadocio and sentimentality, as the great Sir Ralph Richardson first demonstrated more years ago than I care to calculate, and now Kline helps confirm.
The play has a smart concept at its verbose heart: It's a variation on "Beauty and the Beast," where the frog, instead of changing into a handsome prince, obtains a princelike stand-in and becomes a noble voyeur.
The homely soldier-poet Cyrano - whose nose would make Jimmy Durante's schnoz seem retroussé - is in love with his cousin, the beautiful Roxane, but fears his physical appearance disqualifies him.
Roxane, in turn, falls madly in love with the decent but mindless hunk Christian, a young officer in Cyrano's own Gascon regiment.
Cyrano aids and abets the love affair, in a vicarious wooing - composing pretty speeches and even prettier battlefield letters for his inarticulate friend, which win Roxane's heart.
Of course, it is Cyrano's soul she really loves, but life - no friend of the poetic - manages to cheat all three of them. And all of us clever but ugly theatergoers can in sympathy wipe our hearts on its capacious sleeve.
The adaptation is by the same Anthony Burgess who wrote (book and lyrics) the musical "Cyrano" for which Christopher Plummer won a Tony, and virtually every critic, myself included, wished Burgess had left it as the play he started off with.
Unfortunately, David Leveaux's staging this time around misses Rostand's fun and ebullient high spirits and lets the play move like a reluctant snail, with Kline desperately trying to jolly everyone along.
The rest of the cast semaphores the occasionally rhyming text as if in an ambitious high school costume drama where the wigs give the best performances.
Both Jennifer Garner as Roxane and Daniel Sunjata as Christian are knee-deep in film and TV credits, but, despite Garner's promising opening scenes, they wade in onstage projecting little or nothing. The rest, including Chris Sarandon's dour Comte de Guiche, the play's aristocratic villain, range from fair to awful.
But if you just go to see Kline, battling against all odds - and, even while looking far too handsome, acting his good-natured heart out - you will certainly get your money's worth.
A great play, it isn't - and I don't think I've ever seen a more casually enervated production of it. But while actors like Kline want to add the plume of Cyrano to their histrionic history, Rostand's heroic tear-jerker will somehow survive.
Sometimes a glass of moonshine is just what you need to take the sting out of life. David Leveaux’s disarming revival of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, is a double shot of silvery hokum, sweet but surprisingly potent. And it goes down so easily, you’re drunk and misty-eyed before you know it.
Starring an artfully low-key Kevin Kline and a captivating Jennifer Garner, Mr. Leveaux’s savvy production may not make a case for Edmond Rostand’s plumed war horse as an immortal work of high art. It does, though, establish this romantic tale of a 17th-century French cavalier poet with a soul as big as his outsize nose as something perhaps more rare: an immortal popcorn entertainment that pushes emotional buttons just as effectively today as it did when it was written 110 years ago.
The pleasures of “Cyrano,” when presented this astutely, aren’t so different from those of true-hearted old movies that you think you’ve outgrown but wind up watching straight through when you stumble upon them on television.
The swashbuckle of Errol Flynn flicks, the self-sacrifice of “Casablanca” and “Now, Voyager,” the nobility of the maverick idealist in Frank Capra films: All these crowd-pleasing virtues are combined in “Cyrano,” tied up with pretty ribbons of literary lyricism. The play appeals to the enduring hopeful adolescent in us that has grown weary of being cynical.
Mr. Leveaux, the British director of the exquisite-looking Broadway productions of “Nine” and “Jumpers,” does pretty better than most of his peers, which is his blessing and his curse. (Even “Fiddler on the Roof,” in his hands, suggested a Vogue layout on Shtetl Chic.) He also has a strong sentimental streak, tempered by his aesthetic sense. He is the perfect man to bring “Cyrano” into the 21st century, presenting the play’s flowery sensibility without making audiences feel they’ve been doused in perfume.
The central surprise of this “Cyrano” — which may at first throw some traditionalists — is its restraint. Cyrano, the rapier-wielding versifier who hides his love-torn heart, is a role that invites grandstanding and scenery chewing. Mr. Kline is an actor of matinee-idol charm who is known to have made a meal of a set or two. (Remember “Pirates of Penzance”?)
Yet lately his interpretations have been more and more subdued and inward looking, including a superb, mortality-steeped Falstaff and a bizarrely Noël Cowardish Lear. His Cyrano is in this same understated vein, a seemingly perverse choice for a character who hymns his own panache.
Mr. Kline knows what he’s doing. His bluster-free take on a man of bluster grows on you by stealth, and once you’re used to it, it makes wonderfully good sense. Like his Falstaff, Mr. Kline’s Cyrano has heard the chimes at midnight. A melancholy and fatigue underlie his flamboyant wit, a sense of the toll taken by being too ugly for courtly love and too independent for courtly politics.
This implicit sadness sets Cyrano apart even more than usual from the soldiers of his Gascon regiment and the bons vivants of Paris. In more classic interpretations (as by, say, José Ferrer in his Oscar-winning performance in the 1950 film), Cyrano is an exaggerated version of the gallant ideal the other characters aspire to: more manly, more skilled in the martial arts, more eloquent.
Mr. Kline’s Cyrano is indeed all these things. But what truly sets his version apart is the effortlessness with which he embodies them. Even conducting a sword fight to the meter of a spontaneously composed ballade or preparing to take on a lynch mob of a hundred, this Cyrano remains cool and slightly detached. Though Mr. Kline lands every joke and metaphor in style, you sense that Cyrano’s fearlessness comes in part from a weary feeling that he has nothing to lose.
At the root of this attitude is his belief that he could never win the love of his adored cousin, Roxane (Ms. Garner), whom he famously courts in the name of his good-looking but tongue-tied young friend, Christian (a very good Daniel Sunjata). Ms. Garner, I am pleased to report, makes Roxane a girl worth pining over.
The latest in a series of boldface film and television actresses to test their stage legs (including Julia Roberts and Claire Danes), Ms. Garner seems by far the most comfortable. The action-ready, long-limbed presence that made her a natural for the spy series “Alias” lends a lively touch of the tomboy to Roxane. Like Cyrano, she doesn’t quite fit into the regimented world around her, and you can see why these two were meant to be together.
Not incidentally, Ms. Garner radiates megawatt beauty in Gregory Gale’s sumptuous period costumes, and speaks Anthony Burgess’s peppery rhymed translation with unaffected sprightliness. If she’s a tad stilted in the big tragic finale, her comic timing is impeccable. And when Roxane arrives at the siege of Arras, bearing baskets of food for the soldiers, you feel like singing, “Hello, Dolly!”
Mr. Sunjata, best known on Broadway as the gay baseball star of Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” is everything Christian should be: handsome, excitable, a tad obtuse. But he also brings a sobering glint of self-awareness to his final scene that makes it truly and unusually affecting. The supporting cast members, including Chris Sarandon as the scheming Comte de Guiche and Euan Morton as a poeticizing drunkard, work in easygoing harmony.
Tom Pye’s mood-perfect set, awash in gentle flame lighting by Don Holder, makes dexterous and witty use of romantic visual staples like shimmering curtains, rich tapestries, a single naked tree and autumn leaves. And of course there’s an opulently full moon.
Clichés? Sure. But as this production testifies, spun by the right team of alchemists, the fundamental things still apply.
The two competing sides of the romantic triangle in "Cyrano de Bergerac" are divided between one man rich in soul and intellect but lacking in outer beauty and another who's easy on the eye but somewhat empty. Given how clearly Edmond Rostand's classic play sides with the former, it's unfortunate that David Leveaux's only intermittently effective revival lands inadvertently in the latter direction. We get gorgeous stage pictures and an eloquent if oddly low-energy performance in the title role from Kevin Kline but not much in the way of real passion.
Coming more than 20 years after the play's last Broadway presentation (Terry Hands' celebrated 1984 staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Derek Jacobi), there are certainly few complaints about the physical trappings here.
As in their collaboration on "Fiddler on the Roof," Brit director Leveaux and designer Tom Pye have created an extravagant playing space of uncommon depth and this time even more imposing height, building a massive brick-walled hall with enormous rear staircase, embellished with trees, moon and balcony.
After all the busy curtain action in his misconceived revival of "The Glass Menagerie," Leveaux's fascination with billowing drapery makes him the Martha Stewart of stage direction. This production -- graced also by Gregory Gale's sumptuous costumes and Donald Holder's majestic, cathedral-like lighting -- has some exquisite visuals. There's a painterly quality frequently recalling the 17th century Dutch masters, notably in the final scene, with Kline's Cyrano revealing his unrequited love while Roxane (Jennifer Garner) sits at her embroidery, both of them backlit by rows of candles as autumn leaves flutter down.
But that tragic scene -- in which Roxane becomes aware, too late, that the true source of the love that has so overwhelmed her is the poet with the outsize schnoz and not inarticulate pretty boy Christian (Daniel Sunjata) -- fails to massage the heart the way it does the eyes.
In contrast to the bold design statements, Leveaux imposes a modern, naturalistic feel on a play that should thrum with melodramatic grandness and hyperbole. It's all a little tame and sober: Even the soaring declarations of love lack intensity.
A big part of the problem is the uneven cast. As the woman who inflames the passions of both men, Garner joins a recent succession of female movie stars -- Julia Roberts, Julianne Moore, Claire Danes -- whose Broadway bows were not exactly regrettable, but nothing to sing about, either. A fine-boned beauty, Garner looks radiant and carries herself with grace. It's not confidence she lacks but subtlety. She has a nice touch in comedic moments, better when rendered goofy by love than when enraptured by it or stricken by its loss. But there's rarely a moment when she doesn't seem to be trying too hard; it's like a performance in a college production, which was probably the last time Garner was onstage.
More inadequate is Sunjata as the dashing but dullish soldier who enlists erudite Cyrano to give him words of love. Back on Broadway for the first time since "Take Me Out," his Christian is flat and too contemporary. When Sunjata and Garner are alone together onstage, untroubled by any kind of sexual connection, their lack of command over the language sucks the life out of the play.
Some of the supporting cast are more on target: Chris Sarandon is both suitably oily and ultimately humanized as De Guiche; the reliable Max Baker does lively work as poetically inclined cook Ragueneau; and Concetta Tomei adds some droll notes to Roxane's Duenna.
But "Cyrano," of course, is all about the nose. Still spry and almost criminally youthful at 60, the prosthetically enhanced Kline is given a playful star entrance, disrupting the characters onstage from one of the boxes during an aborted performance within the play and then scrambling down to join them.
While Kline at times seems to be in his own universe here, his vocal work is impeccable; the elegant verse, alliteration and flowery wordplay of Anthony Burgess' translation trip effortlessly off his tongue. When he throws the ridicule back in the face of witless challenger Valvert (Carman Lacivita), revving up into an almost musical lexicon of taunts about his beak while never breaking a sweat in the accompanying swordfight, Kline reveals how entertaining this play can be in the right hands. But those sparks are allowed to wane often and the actor at times seems almost disengaged.
Like his introspective King Lear in a production at the Public earlier this year, Kline's Cyrano displays the sorrow beneath his self-assurance, affectingly acknowledging that for all his intelligence, poise, courage and rapier wit, this is a man who feels doomed to loneliness by his physical appearance. That observation is inarguably central to the character, but such a subdued Cyrano ends up dampening the entire play. This is the man, after all, who declares, "I've decided to excel in everything."
The melancholy strain in Kline's performance would appear to invite reflection on how Rostand's account of looks vs. soul resonates in a contemporary culture obsessed with superficial beauty. But Leveaux's handsome, hollow production only compounds the imbalance.