A Man for All Seasons
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 11, 2008
Let me say at the outset that the much-lauded brilliance of Frank Langella's acting has consistently eluded me: I've seen him as Cyrano de Bergerac, Richard Nixon, and other characters, and each time I've failed to grasp whatever others seem to admire so much in his performances.
Nevertheless, I was interested in seeing him essay the role of Sir Thomas More in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, primarily because it's a play I know only by reputation—I'd not read it or seen it, or its film adaptation—and was curious to experience it on stage.
Had I known beforehand that Bolt's play had been so oddly cut for this production, however, I might have thought twice about going. Because—and there's nothing I can find in the program or on Roundabout's website to let the unwary know about this—one of the pivotal devices of Bolt's original has been excised for this production. Now that I've seen the show AND read the play, I'm convinced that what's on stage at the American Airlines Theatre is only a sorry facsimile of what Bolt intended his work to be.
The play tells the story of More, who became Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor during one of the most dramatic periods of English history. The king, disappointed that his first wife Catherine of Aragon had produced no male heir, was determined to annul the marriage and wed Anne Boleyn. But the Pope, who had made special dispensation to allow the marriage to Catherine in the first place, refused to allow Henry his divorce. So Henry withdrew England from the Roman Catholic Church, placing himself as head of the new Church of England instead; thus the Reformation came to the British Isles. More, as Chancellor, was expected to support Henry against the Pope, but steadfastly refused. For his tenacity he was eventually arrested and tried for treason and executed.
More seems an unlikely hero, especially with so much of the historical context of his actions removed, as it is in A Man for All Seasons. The character Bolt offers us is a man of intellectual gifts and unquestionable integrity; a man whose respect for the law is only exceeded by his devotion to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The conflict in the play, such as it is, revolves around More's defiance of the king: his strategy is to be silent so that he can never be observed to have broken any of the various indulgent laws that Henry forced Parliament to enact to bolster his radical actions against the Church. More is not a man of action but rather a man of unshakable faith. His self-sacrifice is hard to understand in modern times (at least it's hard for me to understand).
In his original script, Bolt provided a counterpoint to More's extreme godliness in the form of a character called The Common Man, who served as narrator and took on a variety of roles (here cast with separate actors) such as boatman, jailer, and steward. The brilliance of Bolt's conception is that The Common Man is both a way into the play for audience members (he provides necessary historical background, for example, which is missing from the current production) and a contrast to More's intransigence. Howard Taubman, reviewing the original Broadway production in the New York Times, wrote "[The Common Man] is the shrewd, nimble, comic fellow who knows how to adapt to his environment and look after himself....Who except the Sir Thomas Mores can cast the first stone at him?"
So, in excising The Common Man from this revival, director Doug Hughes has, I fear, done the play some harm. I know that I found it hard to understand what I should make of it. The first act, almost all expository, is quite dull; the second act, filled with intrigue and climaxing with More's trial, is interesting, but More's lawyerly avoidance of taking an actual stand feels alternately cowardly and foolish rather than stirringly courageous. I suspect that if the play had been performed as written, some of More's strength of character might have been more clearly communicated.
But of course that's simply supposition. What I observed in this revival was an uneven ensemble, many of whom seemed to be struggling against poor casting choices: Langella is clearly a decade or two older than More should be, while Jeremy Strong, as Richard Rich, the de facto villain of the piece, seems a mere babe when he should be old enough to appear a match for our hero. There are some bright spots among the company, including Maryann Plunkett, who brings a lot to the thankless role of More's wife Alice, and Patrick Page, who provides blessed energy as a young and vigorous Henry VIII. Santo Loquasto's set—a lattice of heavy wooden beams—constrains the playing space, while Catherine Zuber's costumes, though appropriate to the period, often seem to constrain the actors.
As for Langella, who is, as far as I can tell, the only raison d'etre for this particular Man for All Seasons, I confess that once again the magic I hear others talk about never surfaced for me. In fact, each time he turned in profile to face another character on stage I was unable to even hear what he was saying. All in all, quite a disappointment.