A Big Schnozzola to Bear In Frank Langella’s Cyrano

Frank Langella makes a fascinating Falstaff. Unfortunately, he’s playing Cyrano, in Cyrano de Bergerac , at the Laura Pels Theater. His interpretation of the man with the big nose is a little wayward.

The swashbuckling, spiky, youthful Cyrano has been made weightily avuncular, just as this most romantic of plays has been made small and miserable, as gray as a rainy day in Manchester. It’s a peculiar fate for Edmond Rostand’s fabulous love story that’s boisterously set in 17th-century France. Mr. Langella might have benefited from firmer direction. Unfortunately, he’s also the director. The limp and severely cut adaptation of Brian Hooker’s translation is also a problem. Unfortunately, Mr. Langella is also the adapter.

We must thank our lucky stars that he didn’t turn Cyrano de Bergerac into a musical. Not only would he have composed the score, he would be conducting the orchestra.

Mr. Langella brings new meaning to vanity productions. I’ve little doubt that he would be playing every other role in the production-every big role-if he hadn’t already cut them to shreds. O, Vanity! Thy name is Frank. The Roundabout Theater Company, doubtless glad to have the star actor in its midst-what a treat for the subscribers!-appears to have said, “Do as you will.” And, by golly, he has.

We had a prognosis of what’s wrong with the proboscis when Mr. Langella first appeared. He enters grandly from the back of the auditorium, where he lingers just long enough to compel the entire audience to swivel round to see him. We must abandon whatever’s supposed to be happening on stage in order, as it were, to greet the star, who is wearing some kind of leather tunic like Roger Moore in Octopussy .

He’s also wearing a false nose, of course. But the nose doesn’t seem too bad. It doesn’t seem that big, really, particularly head-on. It’s Frank Langella with a rather noble nose.

Now, nothing is usually more fun in theater than Cyrano’s entrance. It’s a gift to a director. Edmond Rostand, who loved and loathed the theater like the rest of us, created a play within a play. Cyrano, the poet-soldier and free spirit, enters to boo the play-and the lead actor-off the stage.

The theater itself will set the entire plot vividly in motion. It will be where Roxane-Cyrano’s cousin and the object of his desire and undying love-falls in love with the beautiful, brave, brainless one, Christian. Cyrano will be provoked into a duel of words when his nose is insulted, then a real duel. But, firstly, the theater itself is revealed in glorious uproar when Cyrano arrives to boo the play-within-a-play off the stage.

If you wish to see the fun and excitement and theatrical tumult of that scene, you must go to a film. The French film version of Cyrano de Bergerac , starring Gérard Depardieu, captures it all perfectly. But Mr. Langella botches it. For one thing, his miserably underpopulated play-within-a-play isn’t actually taking place on stage. It’s happening illogically in front of a curtain-as if the curtain were hiding something.

It is. It’s hiding the set of Cyrano . But our sense of anticipation nose-dives when the curtain eventually goes up on a grim, gray, all-purpose eyesore that might just about make do for a bus-and-truck company touring with Medea .

A lovely Royal Shakespeare Company production of Cyrano , starring Derek Jacobi (with a memorable adaptation by Anthony Burgess) played on Broadway several years ago. It was fun and light and touching and wonderfully romantic-everything we had hoped. But what I also remember about the production was its prettiness. Romance is always a pretty thing.

Fat chance here! The shabby, threadbare production exists in a no man’s land, without a sense of place and time. In his attempt to pin down the essentials and somehow make the drama more universal than it has proved for a century, Mr. Langella is saying: “This Cyrano is you!” He abandons Rostand’s France (and Cyrano’s identity) to send the commonplace message that, one way or another, we’ve all got a big schnozzola to bear.

The message doesn’t inspire-though Mr. Langella thinks differently. His explanatory words are displayed grandly in the theater foyer for all to study: “If Cyrano cannot overcome his tragic flaw, he can hope to be ‘in all things admirable’-an ideal hard to live by, hard to achieve. But to strive for such greatness of mind and spirit, against all odds, gives us all the hope that perhaps one day, in Paradise, our souls can find those other souls who should be friends of ours.”

I thank you!

But what on earth is he talking about? I’m more certain that his decision to produce a minimalist, pared-down version of Cyrano with a small cast was a serious mistake. The epic sweep of Rostand’s spectacle is part of its enduring appeal. There isn’t a submerged, tragic love story to be mined within it-as, say, Peter Brook’s renowned 80-minute version of Carmen produced the tragic inner spine of the familiar opera like a fat fish filleted to the bone. With Cyrano , it’s all or nothing.

There are other flaws, I’m afraid. The rest of the cast, who must grab what light they can under the circumstances, aren’t great. But Mr. Langella has, in truth, miscast himself. Cyrano should be roughly the same age as young Roxane. In this play about appearances and gallantry, the age difference is forgivable, I guess. But as always, Mr. Langella, the star actor, would have us believe that ham is kosher. He overacts wonderfully well. He shouts, he emotes, he claws the air, he weeps. To insure that we find Cyrano truly tragic, the star therefore totters toward a pillar as he weeps alone on stage to background music. The Cyrano Moment must have been the director’s decision. He weeps alone to something that sounds like “Moon River,” placing an open palm to his furrowed brow as the lights fade meaningfully.

You would have to go a long way to witness that. You would have to go back to the 19th century. Mr. Langella is unique. He’s the reincarnation of Edwin Forrest, the American idol of the 19th-century stage topped in the art of hamming it up only by his great rival, the leading English thespian of this day, William Charles Macready. Their rival productions of Macbeth caused the notorious Astor Place riots in 1849. I’m sorry I missed them.

Those were the days when people really cared about theater. (There were more than 30 deaths and about 100 injuries.) I’d quite like to incite a riot myself-as Cyrano, the secret drama critic, does while attending the old-fashioned star performance at the start of Cyrano de Bergerac . “Boo!” he goes. “Boooo!”

But not me. It would be impolite. Beside, no one does it better than Frank Langella. During Cyrano’ s balcony scene-the second most famous balcony scene in dramatic literature-Mr. Langella’s histrionics grew so intense that when he doubled up with emotion, I thought he was having a nosebleed. Cyrano, who at the time is wooing Roxane on behalf of the tongue-tied Christian, is meant, of course, to remain unseen. He is so unseen that Roxane could have leaned over the balcony and said:

“Aw. Come on, Frank. We know it’s you!”

It sure couldn’t have been anyone else. A Big Schnozzola to Bear In Frank Langella’s Cyrano