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Richard and Anne

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rule number one: Always bet on the Bard. Nearly 400 years after his death, William Shakespeare still is refusing to loosen his grip on all of us. It's sometimes easy to forget the degree to which he's influenced theatre, pop culture, and even history, but his presence is still felt daily in all of our lives, and once he told a story, it stayed told his way.

That's created a problem for the subjects of his history plays, most of whom live on today primarily (if not exclusively) through Shakespeare's writing. Of them, it's not much of a stretch to declare Richard III - depicted as lecherous, traitorous, and malformed - the most maligned. But is that reputation earned? Playwright Maxwell Anderson was intent on addressing this issue in Richard and Anne, which is currently receiving its world premiere at the Arclight Theatre.

This production, however, is a must-see only because of its historical importance. Anderson won a Pulitzer Prize (for Both Your Houses in 1933) and wrote a number of temporarily notable plays and musicals, but couldn't get Richard and Anne produced when he completed it in 1955. (Anderson died in 1959, and most of his works are no longer in the standard repertoire.) And though anyone performing a play under these circumstances hopes to unearth a great lost treasure, this production of the Young Mirror Company (in association with the Mirror Repertory Company) demonstrates that 50 years haven't robbed the theatregoing public of a masterpiece.

In fairness, it's difficult to know how much of what's onstage is Anderson's and how much is not: A program note explains that the company has altered the text of the play, and considers the changes the "natural extension" of the editing process Anderson would have performed had the work been produced. But it's doubtful, given the results onstage, that any amount of editing would have resulted in an appreciably stronger work. Richard and Anne starts with a clever premise and goes nowhere clever with it; it's a concept in search of a worthy play.

That concept is that a company of young contemporary actors (judging by their makeup, leather, and stylized movement, Off-Off-Broadway is a good guess) attempting to perform Richard III is visited by a mysterious a jester named Dag (DeVon Jackson), who objects to the portrayal of the title character, and won't let the play continue. Dag summons the real Richard (Kyle T. Jones), who greatly enjoys the performance about someone who just happens to bear his name; when he learns that it's supposed to be him, he and Dag take over the company and force them to enact the true story.

That story, more or less, is that Richard and Anne (Lauren Marie Jones) - whom, in this version, he truly loves - were victims of an ever-growing conspiracy led by Henry Tudor (Lucas Beck). Henry first conspires with Richard's brother Clarence (Ian Forester) to prevent Richard and Anne from marrying and claiming the Warwick family inheritance, then later teams up with Bishop Morton (Zachary Green) to destroy Richard's life and thus remove all obstacles to his claim on the throne. Once Richard is defeated in battle, all that remains is to "clear up" the historical record; that, of course, results in the story of Richard III that we know.

Anderson's version of Richard's story doesn't lack intrigue; what it lacks is any sense of dramatic purpose beyond "correcting" what we know about Richard. That is, of course, part of the point, but the story, despite its many events, plods more than it excites. It catches fire only occasionally, when focusing on the love between Anne and Richard, which - for reasons dramatic as well as historical - has never worked out the way either has wanted.

But those moments are few, and given Richard's large part in the action, he never burns with much inner life as Anderson wrote him or as Jones plays him. Jones is sturdy and handsome (as the "real" Richard must of course be); he's also stuffy, uncharismatic, and given to rendering his lines in a colorless, college theatre English accent. Many of the other actors suffer similar problems, with a few exceptions: Jones brings real regal bearing and a nice honesty to Anne, Lindsey Anderson does some delightful work as Clarence's wife Isabel, and Zachary Green brings a compulsive oiliness to both Morton (the future Archbishop of Canterbury) and the "original" Richard.

But the real-world scenes are better across the board, as they allow the young actors to play characters closer to their own age and level of experience. Nicholas Uber Leonard is a notable standout as Al, the company's beleaguered stage manager, who struggles most of the evening to maintain control over the production. He also takes charge of the play's most important scene, in which Richard confronts him about his reactions to the Richard of fiction as opposed to the Richard of fact, and ends up learning more than he expected about the importance of the artist in determining histories and communicating legacies.

These few moments near the end of the second act (directed by Anthony Nelson with a simplicity and sincerity he'd do well to bring to the rest of the production), are the only time where Anderson almost gets the better of Shakespeare. The scene demonstrates, in uncluttered terms, why Shakespeare remains one of the world's greatest playwrights: his ability to fictionalize fact and arrive at a higher, more real truth. That's ultimately what nearly every playwright strives for, but is something that, in Richard and Anne, is itself too seldom in evidence.

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Richard and Anne
Through June 19
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission
Arclight Theatre, 152 West 71st Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix