Beheaded in 1535, Soporific Saint Now Inadequately Revived

But is it what we need? In Bolt’s account of Sir Thomas’ steadfast defiance of Henry VIII’s Reformist war with

But is it what we need? In Bolt’s account of Sir Thomas’ steadfast defiance of Henry VIII’s Reformist war with papal Rome and illegal divorce, the martyred More pleaded the Fifth, as it were.

With its costume parade of walk-on kings and tyrants and weasels, Bolt’s simplified historical pageant creates a dramatic smoke screen of a superior kind. But what does his martyred Thomas More really think and feel? What ideas does he convey—except for his saintly gravitas in the teeth of convenient moral compromise?

Give an actor the kindling wood—goes the expression—and he’ll light the fire. Paul Scofield created the role of Sir Thomas More on stage and screen so memorably that it’s taken 45 years for anyone to risk staging another Broadway production. Scofield—who died earlier this year—made Bolt’s good-bad play seem remarkable. To appreciate his genius, you’ve only to see his tortured, sly, ruminative More in Fred Zimmerman’s splendid film version.

Frank Langella is a star actor of the old school. Give him a saint to play and everyone else who appears onstage with him must catch what light they can. His star power gives new meaning to the description “Also appearing.…” Mr. Langella makes a hearty meal of his Sir Thomas More. From the moment he enters to applause, he plants himself firmly center stage; he emotes; he weeps; he collapses; he gives his all.

I’ve written before that Mr. Langella is the last of the American star actors who would be at home on the 19th-century stage. The irony is that Scofield was the first actor in England to reject the 19th-century theatrical tradition. Heir to the golden trio of Olivier, Richardson and Gielgud, the great Paul Scofield, who looked forever ravaged by time, was the first modern psychological actor produced by England.

Mr. Langella is a delightful, crowd-pleasing ham. His recent, admirable performance in Frost/Nixon even managed to make Nixon likable. Evil characters usually turn out to be more interesting than saints. The star’s plummy Thomas More is beatific from start to finish.

“Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God,” More declares to the conniving Cramner at the close. “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.” Which leaves Mr. Langella only to ascend the steep stairway to the scaffold oozing benign forbearance like, well, like Dickens’ sacrificial Sidney Carton in the final moments of the Broadway musical A Tale of Two Cities.

You see what dozing off at the theater does? It leaves me with a thorn in my paw.

 

BUT BY ANY standards, let alone the highest, this is a poor production by Doug Hughes. It could be the work of a second-rate provincial touring company (with visiting star actor attached). A round of applause invariably greets the set whenever the curtain goes up at the Roundabout Theatre—and the set preens in response—but not this time. Santo Loquasto’s design of some kind of skeletal Tudor house looks impoverished and cramps the stage. David Lander’s lighting is too self-consciously dark and shadowy. Catherine Zuber’s period costumes are uniformly stock.

Last week, I raved about The Seagull’s wonderful ensemble of British and American actors. This week, we’re back to business as usual with the work of a scratch ensemble whose accents are all over the map. Mr. Langella aside, the cast is the most unexciting of all possible things—adequate. Only Patrick Page, in his single scene as a somewhat too dashing King Henry, displays vitality and finesse.

This sorry production of A Man for All Seasons could be anywhere. It has no personal style, no identity or point of view. It just is. That’s long been good enough for Roundabout Theatre’s contented 40,000 subscribers, and I wish each and every one of them every happiness. But enough is enough.

We go to the theater the better to understand our weary world, to give it meaning in hope of transcendence. The Roundabout is among the leading nonprofit companies in the country. It’s time—high time—it abandoned its placid policy of safe, mediocre revivals and took a few risks in search of the miraculous.

jheilpern@observer.com

Beheaded in 1535, Soporific Saint  Now Inadequately Revived