Lincoln Center doesn't fool around when it puts on one of Shakespeare's plays. There isn't anything second rate about their current production of Cymbeline at the Vivian Beaumont. Not even the second rate parts get second tier actors. When you can boast a Cymbeline with actors like Anthony Cochrane as a Roman Captain, John Cullum as Cymbeline (who actually has a pretty small role for a show that bears his name) and Daniel Oreskes in a couple of minor roles, you know that fine actors are flocking to a production for the joy of being part of something special. They are so right!
This is the fourth production of Cymbeline that we've seen in New York in recent years (two at BAM, one at the Delacorte several summers ago). No doubt that's probably three too many, but despite some mad desire to keep producing this play, all of them have been better than they had any right to be. This one, at Lincoln Center, might well be the best of the crop, thanks to Michael Cerveris' soulful performance as Posthumus Leonatus, Jonathan Cake's sincerely slimy work as the deceitful Iachimo, Adam Dannheisser's genuinely funny Lord Cloten, John Pankow who is so naturally good as the good Pisanio and finally Martha Plimpton - who has consistently turned in some of the best female performances on the stages of New York - shining as the romantically committed Imogen.
Director Mark Lamos delivers a fully realized rendition of a lesser yet somehow still compelling work by the master. Set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Jess Goldstein and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt spend Lincoln Center's money to excellent effect; you see the budget on the stage. More importantly, though, you see talent on the stage, and that talent is given full flower in this exquisite production.
The Seafarer does not fare so well
The first act of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer would have been interminable if the actors weren't so damned talented. All exposition, character development and drunken camaraderie, the play doesn't so much tread water as drown in its love of talk, talk, talk. One only wishes that they had something more meaningful to say. That they say so little, so well, is a testament to their thespian prowess. Be that as it may, it isn't until the arrival of Ciaran Hinds, as Mr. Lockhart (a poker playing devil) that the play finally takes root and begins to grow into something with a sense of conflict and even a tiny bit of plot.
The supernatural quality of the piece is elegantly established by Rae Smith's set design, Neil Austin's lighting design, and most notably by Mathew Smethurst-Evans' sound design. More creepy than spooky, the show has the look and feel of a dark and brooding dream rather than a full-blown horror tale. And that's appropriate, given the understated, non-flamboyant style of the devil. He's there to play cards and win a soul, and nothing much more. Nonetheless, Hinds has a speech in which he describes the nature of hell with such quiet, bloodcurdling detail - Conor McPherson's script at its best - that then, and only then, do you truly feel the horror.
Great performances by Ciaran Hinds, David Morse as his sad intended victim, Conleth Hill as a deliciously dim friend and Jim Norton who plays a man who is both blind and blind drunk yet ultimately a good and noble man - and what an actor!
Conor McPherson didn't so much err because he directed his own play as he did by writing such a thin piece of work. The ending seems kind of cheap, even if it is satisfying. This is a play to see for its performances but, frankly, that might not be enough.
Tis the Season to be Grinchy
At first glance there isn't that much difference between last year's production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and this year's edition. After all, the brilliant Patrick Page is back as the Grinch, as is his trusty young pooch Max played by Rusty Ross. Even one of the two Cindy-Lou Who kids is back to charm the Grinch (and all of us). Certainly the unforgettable costumes by Robert Morgan are once more on display, and they shimmer on the postcard pretty set by John Lee Beatty. But having said all of that, there are some changes that warrant comment - and a few things that weren't changed that also should be noted ...
The main difference, of course, is the absence of John Cullum as the old dog, Max. Cullum brought an earthy reality to Max while Ed Dixon, who plays the role this season, seems more slickly amiable. On the other hand, both Aaron Galligan-Stierle and Tari Kelly, who are new as Papa and Mama Who respectively, are welcome additions to the cast. The one (or should we say, two?) element that has not changed since last season is the double-dip of having not one, but two episodes of "stuff" falling down on top of the audience from high above. The first climactic event comes from real snow machines in the rafters. It actually snows in the theater. Very cool! But then, in attempt to top that, there is an altogether anti-climactic deluge of confetti that comes down a little later. Frankly, this second event seems kind of lame and lazy after the real snow has fallen. But that's just about our only serious reservation.
The book and lyrics by Timothy Mann are appealing while the music by Mel Marvin is engagingly melodic. At a swift eighty minutes, the show doesn't overstay its welcome. Nor its season. Given its success at the box office, we can expect that it will return next year to beguile us once again.