AISLE SAY New York
CYRANO DE BERGERAC
by Edmond Rostand
Translation and Adaptation by Anthony Burgess
Directed by David Leveaux
Starring Kevin Kline, Jennifer Garner and Chris Sarandon
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, (212) 398-8383
Reviewed by David Spencer
I shall confess something now that probably I shouldn't. I am an admirer, perhaps even a fan, of the actor Kevin Kline, yet I have previously walked out on Kline performing classic title roles twice, perhaps even three times, come intermission. Specifically, roles in which I'm meant to have a visceral, empathetic (if not sympathetic) connection to him. His command of technique is astonishing, he's charismatic and witty of nuance and he's wonderful at a kind of manic light comedy—which translates also into dramatic intensity, when playing someone dangerous to himself or others.
But he's sure not your go-to guy for anything meant to move you, not onstage (I leave his film performances to another assessment). And in that context, I always find myself distanced from him, to the point where the performances strike me as a little antiseptic. And somehow this tends to infuse the productions too. The why of this can't be quantified without being inside any given rehearsal process, and indeed may differ from production to production; but nonetheless, that sensation of hollowness at the emotional center is always (for me) accompanied by reflective reverberations in other key elements, from director's concept to supporting players. (When I've left at the halfway mark it has never been out of frustration, disdain or even anger; in fact the reverse, a sense of weary hopelessness and the sure knowledge that I've learned all the evening has to tell me.) In a way—perhaps—that isn't surprising. A director, knowing from the git that he's tailoring a classic toward a certain star, doubtless having the star involved in the gestation of the vision, collaborating to the extent of incorporating his views, accommodating his strengths, would, it stands to reason, tend to feed into the qualities that most bespeak the star's essence. Putting aside the director's gifts and intelligence—let's say that in all cases they've been formidable—it would still take a rare and unusually daring director to have, not only the insight to think, I need to play against my star's cool persona by way of providing contrast and giving him a hotter environment from which to bounce off, but indeed, the strength and subtlety of implementation to follow through with such a plan, as that's probably not something you could actually articulate to your star. (On the other hand, TV and film director Garry Marshall advises that a director's understanding the best way to communicate with a star is key, because each star requires different handling. Some like to delve deeply into theory and motivation; some, like Tom Hanks, thrive on intuition and need only shorthand: "faster", "bigger", "more weepy", "louder". I don't know what Mr. Kline's most effective creative language entails, but it's entirely possible that, for the classics, he's never quite had a stage director who could tap into it sufficiently.)
I didn't really expect more from Mr. Kline's turn in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac, but I had hope, and with reason. Edmond Rostand's play gives its leading actor every possible kind of ammunition with which to engage the audience, and is indeed about a man whose core sadness is camouflaged by practiced, bold exterior. More than this, the production uses the splendiferous Anthony Burgess translation and adaptation, never bettered, nor by a wide margin, even equaled in the English language. Throughout it maintains classical grandeur side by side with a timeless colloquialism. It was the basis for a lesser 1973s Broadway musical and a superior 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company staging (that visited Broadway) and those productions featured performances by, respectively, Christopher Plummer and Derek Jacobi that were beyond transcendent (if you'll forgive an oxymoron). If ever there was a classic script fitted to Kline's best potential, the Burgess Cyrano is it.
And yet, in execution...not so much.
Right at the start, the signs are unpromising. Director David Leveaux, who has, about half his time at bat, proven capable of inspired concepts and stagings, is here chalking up one for the other half. The opening scene, in which minor characters gather to watch a famous actor, all the while discussing (and preparing for the entrance of) the ample-nosed swordsman—seeing as how Cyrano had banished the preening actor from the stage for a month which is not yet over—is not easy, as it is nakedly expositional in setting up several plot threads. Until Cyrano, none of the characters enters memorably, and the audience is presented with a lot of information to absorb. Detail work, focus and energy are key to lifting the curse of "obligatory ceremony" from this first sequence, and it's just not evident. The gathering of characters and forces is more of a generic meandering sprawl, you're never quite sure where to look, and none of the supporting players achieves meaningful definition upon first impression. The posturing actor's bombast is lifelessly ritualistic, and when Cyrano, of course, enters to send him packing, he seems almost polite: his box-seat objection is no more rousing than a parliamentary point of order, his descent down the ladder to stage level has neither swash nor buckle but rather only measured sure-footedness, and when he is at last centerstage, there is no sense of grand rage, but rather a weary (if pointed) peevishness.
Cyrano de Bergerac works like a musical in that its subject and its themes are so big that a production pretty much defines its tone and ability to deliver right at the start. And with this as the intro you hope against hope that maybe, maybe, it's a misleading false start. But no, it sets the tone for a low key evening, whose most intense moments are only lightly antic. Or lightly frantic.
Jennifer Garner's Roxanne is commensurately a confused portrait. It bounces from silly vacuity to fierce intelligence, not as if the one is a blind for the other, regulated by internal forces, but rather as if each is a performers affect, used alternately to achieve contrast and color.
Unexpectedly it is the Christian of Daniel Sunjata who delivers something of the emotional charge you yearn for in a production of Cyrano. It's not a great performance, but it's never less good than appropriate, for the role of the callow young lover for whom Cyrano becomes romantic ghostwriter, as they pursue their mutual muse Roxanne. His fire, his passion, his desperation and finally his nobility are insistent, clear and engaging because they're so committed.
And as I type that word I realize that commitment is what's missing here. Not for the artists; I'm certain that their choices are deliberate and considered, very much the kind of thing Stephen Sondheim has dubbed "conscious mistakes." But for us on the receiving end. Which I guess means, really, the perceivable quality of commitment. (And for the record: I hung on til the end this time.)
Ironic as it's that, isn't it, for which Cyrano lives. And dies...