It's easy to see why Frank Langella chose "A Man for All Seasons" for his return to the stage after "Frost/Nixon." This endlessly versatile three-time Tony winner brings as much complex humanity to the saintly Sir Thomas More as he did to the sinning 37th president.
Robert Bolt's 1960 play concerns More's steadfast refusal to sanction King Henry VIII's plan to sever ties with the Catholic Church so he could divorce Queen Catherine, a stance that led to More's imprisonment and eventual beheading.
While its theme of individual conscience clashing with the demands of the state remains all too relevant, the drama is a somewhat static, talky affair that is only intermittently compelling.
Fortunately, Langella is so mesmerizing in the lead role that he single-handedly overcomes the evening's more tedious passages.
Less wittily urbane than the great Paul Scofield, who first played the role on Broadway and in the screen version, Langella brings an earthy steeliness to his portrayal that conveys More's stubbornness as much as his morality. And he's deeply moving in the final scenes, when Sir Thomas becomes despairingly aware that his cause is lost.
The acting in director Doug Hughes' production for the Roundabout Theatre Company - which wisely eschews the Common Man character which originally served as the play's narrator - is otherwise less impressive.
Patrick Page - last seen here in green as the Grinch in the seasonal Dr. Seuss musical - brings a charismatic vitality to King Henry in the highly effective, and only, scene in which the king appears. And Maryann Plunkett is touching as More's fiercely protective wife.
But too many of the other performances are one-dimensional, such as Zach Grenier's baldly villainous Thomas Cromwell, the king's toady, who helps engineer More's fall.
Not helping matters is Santo Loquasto's utilitarian but highly drab wooden-frame set design.
In the end, though, it's less the production and more its star that best deserves the title of "A Man for All Seasons."
Is it heresy to whisper that the sainted Thomas More is a bit of a bore? Even Frank Langella, an actor who can be counted on to put the pepper in mashed-potato parts, doesn’t find much variety in the monolithic goodness of the title character of “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt’s 1960 biodrama about More’s road to martyrdom during the reign of Henry VIII.
Mind you, Mr. Langella is inarguably a Great Presence in the respectful revival that opened on Tuesday night at the American Airlines Theater, directed by Doug Hughes. Stage actors don’t reach the living legend status achieved by this charismatic star without giving good glow. And here Mr. Langella haloes himself with such incandescence that you may wish you had brought along a pair of polarized glasses.
But starlight needs to flicker and sputter if a complex character is to emerge from all that radiance. And Mr. Bolt’s script — which clearly and intelligently outlines Henry VIII’s epochal war with the Roman Catholic Church over matters marital — neglects to include several essential ingredients for a compelling dramatic hero. Like conflict, doubt, vacillation and change.
As characterized by Mr. Bolt’s interpretation, which became a popular hit onstage and on screen in the 1960s with Paul Scofield (as Sir Thomas) picking up most every acting award on offer, More is a man for all seasons in the sense that an evergreen is a tree for all seasons. He is steadfast and colorfast, even when the winds of winter threaten to strip him bare.
Throughout this 2-hour-and-40-minute stately procession of debates and events, More is described as stubborn, innocent, upright and, yes, even saintly. There is no dispute about his rectitude, even among his enemies. While More himself is wittily self-deprecating about such assessments, he lives up to them.
This makes him an inconvenient adversary, especially when, as the king’s chancellor, he refuses to support publicly the annulment of Henry’s two-decade-long marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which has failed to produce a male heir, so he can marry Anne Boleyn. It also makes portraying him an uphill battle for an actor who has traditionally been at his best delivering juicy portraits of fabled sinners, both imaginary (Dracula, the part that made Mr. Langella’s name in the late 1970s) and real (Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon,” for which he won a Tony Award in 2007).
With the film version of “Frost/Nixon” scheduled to open soon, you can see why Mr. Langella would relish the chance to show off his nobler profile. And you can see why the Roundabout Theater Company would leap at the opportunity to mount a Masterpiece-Theater-style production with the laurel-wreathed Mr. Langella as its heroic center. But it is evident as well why there had been no Broadway revival of the play for four decades. (The Roundabout staged an Off Broadway production in 1987, starring Philip Bosco.)
“A Man for All Seasons” undoubtedly has its merits. It is written in elegant prose (some of it taken directly from More), with a clean line in metaphors and refreshingly little of the “Good morrow, Master So-and-So” talk that can make costume dramas so winceable. The dialogue moves fluidly and lucidly, especially considering that talking points include subjects like the Apostolic Succession and Deuteronomy versus Leviticus on matrimonial law.
And as the reign of George W. Bush comes to an end, it is certainly worth revisiting the play’s considerations of the obligations of law and of governmental control of private beliefs. (The program notes conclude archly with this statement, which quotes from Mr. Bolt’s original script: “It should be remembered that ‘A Man for All Seasons’ deals with ‘an age less fastidious than our own. Imprisonment without trial and even examination under torture were common practice.’ ”)
Mr. Hughes’s production correspondingly emphasizes a feeling of enveloping moral darkness. Santo Loquasto’s spartan set, centered on the frame of a Tudor house, and David Lander’s crepuscular lighting embody this sensibility, as do the prolific Catherine Zuber’s mostly somber costumes. Brightness is provided in the form of candles, torches and that most luminous entity of all, Mr. Langella’s More.
The text has been denuded of one significant character: a Brechtian creature called the Common Man, who in the printed play pops up in various incarnations (More’s steward, a boatman, the executioner), dispensing the vox populi. Eliminating this figure puts the emphasis even more squarely on More, from his first solo entrance to his climactic walk up that long stairway to paradise (i.e., the chopping block).
Lord knows Mr. Langella doesn’t shirk his duties as the center of attention. It’s fun to watch him avert his eyes in contained distaste from the spectacle of his fellow mortals’ shortcomings or clutch the back of a chair to steady himself when receiving life-shattering information, the only betrayal that his equanimity has been shaken. On the few occasions when he raises his voice, you don’t doubt that Heaven can hear him. Such regal deportment evokes the days when grand stars like the Barrymores presided over plays.
Certainly, most of the rest of the cast — which includes Patrick Page as a boyish Henry VIII, the talented Jeremy Strong as an ambitious moral-chameleon and the newcomer Hannah Cabell as More’s devoted, scholarly daughter — doesn’t give Mr. Langella much of a run for the limelight. I enjoyed Maryann Plunkett’s touchingly severe performance as More’s uncomprehending but loyal wife. And Zach Grenier is excellent as the wily, supremely political Thomas Cromwell.
All too aware of the dangerous game of compromises that success in government demands, and both contemptuous and frightened as a consequence, Mr. Grenier’s Cromwell is easily the most intriguing soul onstage. Now there’s a character Mr. Langella could sink his teeth into. Surely, it would be more rewarding than being the fixed if towering center of a shrine.
The flexibility and limits of executive power in our government have been the focus of intense debate in recent years, so it seems as good a time as any for the Roundabout Theatre Company to revive A Man for All Seasons (*** out of four). It opened Tuesday at the American Airlines Theatre.
First produced on Broadway in 1961 and made into a classic film five years later, Robert Bolt's play traces the sad, inspiring final chapter in the life of Sir Thomas More, the lawyer, author and statesman who served as Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. More fell out of favor after he refused to sign the Act of Supremacy, which gave the king authority as head of the Church of England to defy the pope and annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, thus freeing his highness to cavort with Anne Boleyn.
Aside from More and, briefly, Henry, none of these characters appear on stage; had Bolt included them, his work might have had less of an arid, academic air.
Instead, two long and hardly brisk acts are devoted largely to having More explain and defend his intellectual and moral philosophy to those who support, challenge and betray him.
It's thought-provoking stuff but not always the most compelling drama.
Luckily, this production — like the screen adaptation, which starred Paul Scofield — is anchored by an indelible, irresistible performance. As More, Frank Langella, who earned a Tony Award last year for his nuanced portrait of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, tackles a very different historical figure with similar grace and depth.
Just as he refused to reduce the disgraced president to a villainous caricature, Langella plays More not as a saint (though he was canonized four centuries after his death), but rather as a complex, witty, stubborn and tender man whom we believe when he tells us that he doesn't wish to be a martyr.
Langella has a worthy sparring partner in Zach Grenier, who brings bracing menace to the role of Thomas Cromwell, the rival statesman who slavishly and ruthlessly serves the interests of the king.
Patrick Page's virile, charismatic Henry also proves a commanding foil, and Michel Gill is a gentler but still robust presence as More's virtuous but increasingly frustrated ally, the Duke of Norfolk.
More's feisty but devoted wife and noble daughter are adroitly played by, respectively, Maryann Plunkett and Hannah Cabell, though there's little the actresses or able director Doug Hughes can do to make their parts more than well-crafted stock characters.
In the end, only the leading man can ensure that Seasons sustains its subtle spark, and Langella is, happily, more than up to the task.
The word "maverick" has been so thoroughly co-opted as a catchall credential by the Republican presidential campaign that it may be forever tied to that context. But for a true illustration of a staunchly independent dissenter worthy of that label, history is a better place to look -- for instance, to Robert Bolt's depiction of Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons." The 1961 drama about the martyrdom of the chancellor of England under Henry VIII is not without windy preachiness. But the Roundabout staging becomes more gripping as it proceeds, driven by a performance from Frank Langella as measured and naturalistic as it is majestic.
The first question in approaching any historical play concerns its relevance to audiences today, and, to his credit, director Doug Hughes hasn't belabored that consideration. However, given Bolt's pointed contemplation of a self-serving executive branch run by unprincipled men and built on secrecy, cronyism, unaccountability, intimidation and vindictiveness, you'd have to be dozing to miss the connection.
Even without the Common Man, a multipurpose commentator character who was excised from the 1966 movie and remains absent in this first Broadway revival, Bolt's observation of the ways in which probity can be perceived as an encumbrance to government in any age remains clear. More (Langella) could be referring as much to present-day D.C. as 16th century England when he tells Dakin Matthews' amusingly cranky Cardinal Wolsey, "I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties ... they lead their country by a short route to chaos."
Given the play's still-pertinent disdain for delinquent politics, not to mention the humanity and bone-dry wit of Langella's characterization, it's a pity Hughes' production gets bogged down in ponderousness during the long first act.
The exposition is admittedly an onerous task. Wishing to offload Catherine of Aragon after she's been unable to produce a male heir, and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII (Patrick Page) angles to obtain a papal dispensation to carry out his intentions. After repeated failure, he severs England's connection to the Catholic Church, prompting More to resign as chancellor -- a decision that reverberates across Europe.
More believes his refusal to speak against the king's remarriage makes him invulnerable to charges of treason. But others say silence equals protest -- you're either with us or against us, in contemporary parlance.
Act two picks up speed, and the conflicts become more vivid as More's isolation morphs from political exile to victimization to condemnation.
One of the strengths of Bolt's dense play is its insight into how More's convictions shape the motivations and actions of those around him. His wife, Alice (Maryann Plunkett), can only comprehend the threat to the family's safety, not her husband's refusal to yield, while his daughter Margaret (Hannah Cabell) is on her father's wavelength but still urges that he save himself by recognizing Lady Anne as queen.
The Machiavellian forces surrounding More include the oily Spanish ambassador (Triney Sandoval), smarting from the damage to his countrywoman Catherine; opportunistic climber Richard Rich (Jeremy Strong); the Duke of Norfolk (Michel Gill), a loyal friend cornered into plotting against More at the risk of his own neck; and puppet master Thomas Cromwell (Zach Grenier), the king's scheming secretary.
The detailed chronicle of how seemingly minor information is gathered and rendered incriminating is absorbing, even if the network of treachery and helplessness around More could have used bolder strokes.
The play is a star vehicle disguised as ensemble drama. Gill shows affecting depth of character; Plunkett is wrenching in her big scene in which Alice's bitterness gives way to pain; Page brings dimpled smugness and fits of pique to the king; and Grenier makes an entertaining villain out of smarmy toad Cromwell. But these characters are all hampered by Bolt's self-important conception of More as an immovable pillar of virtue and moral fortitude.
By denying the man more than a flicker of doubt or remorse over the consequences of his actions, and by drawing adversaries that outwit him with cunning but never with intellect, the playwright robs the drama of texture. Sure, there's a gut emotional impact in the injustice of watching a great man crushed while lesser ones step over him, but there's too little ambiguity here.
Langella's performance, however, is sufficiently commanding to overcome the role's limited dimension. The actor's effortless authority is softened by a playful sense of irony that makes it seem only natural he would toss off a cutting remark even while being sentenced to die. Humility is not a major asset in Langella's arsenal, but a shot of arrogance adds color to his More, and the penetrating assessments he makes of both friends and foe come through loud and clear, often without words.
Occasionally, the actor indulges in histrionic flashes of temper, but it's in the quieter notes that his performance mesmerizes: a sobering change of expression to uncover the first chink in his statesmanlike armor as Cromwell shows his hand; gently running a finger across his throat as if to imagine how the executioner's blade will feel; the clouding over of his face as defeat registers. And Langella's physical decline -- from a towering figure to an ashen, limping man, worn down by imprisonment but intellectually undiminished -- is shattering.
Particularly in the early scenes, Hughes might have goosed the pace along, but his choice of craft collaborators can hardly be faulted. Catherine Zuber's weighty costumes and David Lander's chiaroscuro lighting both add gravitas. And David Van Tieghem's pristine sound aids considerably in following the discourse-heavy action, while his brooding, modern music guides the transitions.
But the unifying element is Santo Loquasto's arresting set -- sparely dressed, with economic use of simple, period-defining props, shifting rear panels and evocative washes of light to create different locations. The cathedral-like maze of austere wooden beams serves as both an appropriately hallowed space for a man of unshakable faith in religion and the law and as the gallows to which he inevitably ascends.