Henry IV by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Adapter/Dramaturg Dakin Matthews. Sets designed by Ralph Funicello. Costumes designed by Jess Goldstein. Lighting designed by Brian McDevitt. Fight Director Steve Rankin. Original music and sound by Mark Bennett. Special effects by Gregory Meeh. Cast: Tyrees Allen, Anastasia Barzee, Terry Beaver, Tom Bloom, Christine Marie Brown, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Stephen DeRosa, Richard Easton, Genevieve Elam, Peter Jay Fernandez, Scott Ferrara, Ethan Hawke, Michael Hayden, Dana Ivey, Byron Jennings, Albert Jones, Ty Jones, Kevin Kline, Aaron Krohn, David Manis, Dakin Matthews, Audra McDonald, Jed Orlemann, Lorenzo Pisoni, Steve Rankin, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Corey Stoll, Baylen Thomas, Jeff Weiss, Nance Williamson, C.J. Wilson, Richard Ziman.
Great ideas given great execution have been in relatively short supply this Broadway season. Lincoln Center Theater's new offering at the Vivian Beaumont doesn't quite tip the scales, but it comes close; after this season's super-sized disappointments and small-scale shows in disguise, the relatively minor failings of Henry IV can't prevent it from feeling like a breath of fresh air.
Dakin Matthews has acted upon an idea so sound, one can only wonder why it's not done more often: he's taken Henry IV Part I and Part II - each a full-length play by William Shakespeare - and combined them into one dramatic piece. Despite running three hours and forty-five minutes in three acts, with the third more filler than fulfilling, Henry IV is still about the breeziest, most efficiently paced show Broadway has seen since Long Day's Journey Into Night opened this past spring.
As it's directed by Jack O'Brien, whose work has recently kept both musicals and plays buoyant in New York, that's not much of a surprise. If it weren't for the almost total lack of songs, I'd even swear that Henry IV was a musical - the set, by Ralph Funicello, is a latticework of constantly reconfiguring and lumbering wooden beams and staircases; Jess Goldstein's costumes are lush and rich, using color and material to clearly and immediately point up differences in characters' classes and positions; Brian MacDevitt's lighting further allows the playing space to expand from wall to wall or contract for just one person; and Mark Bennett's original music and sound add wonderful finishing touches.
The show's only real problems are found within Matthews's adaptation itself. Matthews is less interested in devoting Henry IV to the political maneuverings, minute and otherwise, that gave both original plays much of their complexity; rather, he has chosen to use the political events as a backdrop, focusing primarily on the personal relationships and conflicts between Henry IV (Richard Easton), his eldest son Hal (Michael Hayden), and the jolly knight whom Hal sees as a surrogate father, Sir John Falstaff (Kevin Kline).
While certainly a bold choice, it proves a bit counterproductive, diminishing not only the bulk, but the color and depth of the original plays. It also reduces the rebellion against Henry IV, led by Hotspur (Ethan Hawke), to little more than a grand historical pageant. This does all climax in a truly exciting battle scene (the fight director is Steve Rankin), but at what cost? Henry IV the father is established so much more effectively than Henry IV the warrior and king, that the stakes never really seem high enough.
The play's first two acts are devoted almost exclusively to Henry IV Part I, leaving only one act for Part II; with so much plot weighing down the first two-thirds of the show, the final act cannot legitimately support itself. It comes across as more of an afterthought, Matthews's concession to his adaptation rather than the logical conclusion of it, with the central father/son story resolved at the expense of much of Shakespeare's original plot. If Matthews really had so little use for Part II, could he not have trimmed Part I a bit more, and brought the evening in closer to three hours than four?
At least there's a tremendous group of actors on hand to invigorate Matthews's text. Easton is hampered a bit by the reduction of his character, but still regally commands great authority, vocally and physically. Hayden reads a bit old for the young, irrepressible Hal, but makes a superb transition from immature thrill-seeker to responsibility-driven monarch. Hawke brings a real raw energy to Hotspur, and lives up to the character's name.
Of particular note in the play's numerous supporting roles are Audra McDonald, who never sings a note, but gives a highly musical performance as the wife who attempts to cool Hotspur's rebellious fires with her chilly sensuality; Byron Jennings lends gravitas and legitimate classical dramatic weight to his role of the Earl of Worcester in Hotspur's rebel army; Dana Ivey makes wonderful use of her voice and trademarked detached, observational performance style in dual roles as tavern hostess Mistress Quickly and Hotspur's mother, Lady Northumberland. Lorenzo Pisoni brings his standard acrobatic grace to Hal's brother, John of Lancaster, and adapter Matthews acquits himself nicely in two smaller roles.
Finally, there's the redoubtable Kline, cast against type as the rotund, lusty Falstaff, but investing him with enough warmly paternal qualities to justify Hal's devotion and keep a firm grip on the sloth and comedy so integral to the role and the audience's expectations. Kline's performance is a noteworthy (and likely award-calibre) departure for him, and for the character, a rethinking that may well prove the performance of the season. It's the perfect mix of traditional and groundbreaking, and is the one role that centers this Henry IV as both a new work and part of a much older tradition.
It's hard not to wish Matthews had been able to maintain a similar balance between his take on the show and Shakespeare's; his play might then be more wholly successful. As it is, from the start of the first scene to the end of the thrilling curtain call, Henry IV is a show that mostly works, giving it a significant - and very welcome - edge on its Broadway competition.