A Sluggish Richard III: Where Is Our Royal Psycho?

Richard III isn’t a complex play for us. It’s a popular melodrama about a world unhinged by a deformed, royal psychopath. Rousing, murderous stuff! But the role of the king—the “bunch-backed toad” himself—is a hell of a challenge for an actor.

Richard owns the play. Compared to his dominating contribution—and our weird complicity in his gleeful monstrosity—there are slim pickings in more or less every other role, particularly the men. Shakespeare wrote the lead part for a showman. This is an early play that completes the Henry civil-war cycle and the feasts of blood. Better plays followed (and superior poetry). Shakespeare—an actor himself, remember—needed a great actor to seize the lightning and make Richard III memorable.

Garrick, Kemble, Kean and Olivier—all played Richard, and the mantle of 19th-century bravura acting was inherited in time by Ian McKellen and Anthony Sher, both flash, virtuoso actors who were considered great Richards. Mr. Sher played him on crutches, if you please—whizzing miraculously round the stage at deformed, spidery high speed. I didn’t see his astonishing performance, but all anyone could talk about was the crutches. They stole the show.

I did see Mr. McKellen’s aristocratic, crypto-fascist version with discreet hump and withered arm. He made evil Richard a heady cocktail of the Duke of Windsor and Dr. Strangelove, pulling off amazing feats with one hand—Richard’s good hand. For instance, when putting on an overcoat, he sort of tossed it in the air and dived into it. He could even open a cigarette case and light a ciggie with one hand tied behind his back. Can you imagine the practice that took? But when he held up his magical hand so all could witness the truly astonishing achievement of it literally putting a glove on itself, I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised had Sir Ian decided to balance on his nose while revolving on a silver ball as pigeons flew out of his pantaloons.

The theatrical tricks of great actors—including Olivier’s parodiable accent and false nose as Richard—are part of the showy gamesmanship. Richard’s flippant villainy encourages extremes and “concepts.” Which brings me reluctantly to Peter Dinklage as Richard at the Public Theater. It shouldn’t be relevant that Mr. Dinklage (of the charming movie The Station Agent) is a dwarf, only how well he plays the role. The actor dispenses with hump and withered arm, incidentally. Being 4-foot-6 is statement enough. But what kind of statement is his director, Peter DuBois, making?

It’s typical of Mr. DuBois’ less-than-inspired production that its only idea should have Mr. Dinklage struggling clumsily to sit on an outsize throne. Are we meant to see him as comic or pathetic? Either way, it’s a blatant point, and it’s the wrong symbolic choice for Richard (who actually ascends the throne with ease; all it takes is killing half his family).

Richard is variously described as a dog, toad, hog and spider. But the point isn’t his deformity, though it’s central to his malign, outcast nature. Richard kills for power and sport. It’s more essential that he’s a vile human being whose daring, smug eroticism can seduce the widow of the husband he’s just killed. He’s Satan, a joker, certainly a gleeful, skeptical ironist colluding with the baser nature of fascinated audiences. It’s why we might even pity him.

But Richard must horrify. He’s the personification of a living nightmare that butchers families and princeling sons without a flicker of conscience. He’s “the shadow in the sun.”

I regret to report that Mr. Dinklage makes only an earnest, self-pitying Richard (and Richard pities no one, not even himself). Lethal irony isn’t this actor’s forte, nor verse. The depths and range of the flamboyant role are absent. He gives us the mythic psychopath as sentimentalized victim, whereas Richard ought to be an unstoppable force of twisted nature. But then, Mr. Dinklage’s careful, measured tempo is no different from the bewilderingly slow, internalized tempo of almost everyone else. If ever a drama needs an animated, hot energy, it’s Richard III. But the director has brought its pulse down to a perilously low level.

We have the urgent vitality of Ron Cephas Jones’s excellent Clarence and the spleen of Isa Thomas’ Queen Margaret. But the ensemble as a whole varies greatly, and there are few compensations. It’s unforgivable for a character to speak in a crowd scene and no one onstage react. It’s slack and deadening, and the audience is left wilting. Mr. DuBois has produced a flat, three-hour, virtual reading of a rivetingly exciting play. Once more, with love and squalor and Shakespeare, we fear the Public Theater has lost its way.

Reckless Among Freaks

Mary-Louise Parker is a very good reason to see the revival of Craig Lucas’s nutty Christmas fable, Reckless, directed by Mark Brokaw at the Biltmore Theater. Not so sure about the eccentric, apparently lighthearted play itself and its serious undertones about the state of contemporary America. But Ms. Parker is a constant delight—one of the very few actresses who can make the dysfunctional seem absolutely, irresistibly normal.

In other admiring words, she’s playing brilliantly on the dangerous edge of things. She isn’t a comic actress, but a serious one who’s deviously funny. She’s also so touching and innocent that she might almost convince you that Mr. Lucas’ 21-year-old play is a small masterpiece of our time.

Reckless is both a spoof and a tragedy of lost innocence, though it’s hard—if not impossible—to be both simultaneously. For myself—though by no means for everyone—the evening’s opening coup de théâtre has always been the most promising thing about it. A happily married woman and mother of two, Rachel (Ms. Parker) is in bed rhapsodizing about the joys of Christmas Eve with her husband, Tom (Thomas Sadoski), who’s silently by her side. She’s having what she calls “a euphoria attack.” Every day for her, we’re prepared to believe, is Christmas. Whereupon her husband begins to weep uncontrollably and confesses he’s taken a contract out on her life.

The confused Rachel flees in her nightgown through the window into the snow and into an odyssey of weird happenings—including her new home with a physical therapist and his deaf paraplegic wife (“Did you slip on the ice?” Rachel asks her endearingly); a double murder; an embezzler in a global charity called Hands Across the Sea; and an appearance on a lunatic game show, Your Mother or Your Wife?

“Do you think we ever really know people?” Rachel inquires. Well, not these people—not most of them, anyway. They’re nutters and freaks. The Act II parody of the gestalt therapist was a little dated the first time round I saw it; so, too, the manic game show and its sweaty host. But at the tiny, Off Broadway Circle Rep of yesteryear, the indulgent flaws were more forgivable, whereas the modest play, with its short, sketchy scenes, appears bloated at the Biltmore.

Mr. Lucas’ messages are overcrowded. He’s saying—I think —that all life is a matter of chance (but that things happen for a reason), and that bad things happen to good people (but you can’t escape the past). Also, an anagram for “Santa” is “Satan.” But Mr. Lucas’ cleverness ran out for me with his more contrived second half and its pat, unconvincing resolution. But not the joy of Ms. Parker’s super performance as the Polyanna who grows up, unfortunately—unfortunately for her sublime, original state of reckless innocence.

A Sluggish Richard III: Where Is Our Royal Psycho?