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My Perfect Mind

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Who would have thought you could mine gold from not playing the role of King Lear, itself that most golden of roles for Shakespearean actors of a certain age and stature? But that is exactly what has happened to the twice Tony nominated British actor Edward Petherbridge, who, along with his fellow merry prankster Paul Hunter, lights up the stage in the thoroughly loopy and utterly charming My Perfect Mind, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59.

Petherbridge, who is knocking on the door of 80, may be best known to American audiences for his portrayal of the gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey from the old BBC series, but he also has had a long and distinguished stage career. In 2007, he jumped at the chance to play King Lear in New Zealand. Unfortunately, he no sooner began rehearsals than he was felled by a stroke that rendered him partially paralyzed and that greatly hindered his ability to walk or even see.

Happily, for him and for us, he recovered. King Lear was out, but Petherbridge could not get the role out of his mind. Ultimately, he hooked up with fellow actor Paul Hunter, with whom he had appeared in a production of The Fantasticks in London. Petherbridge thought that perhaps they might put together a two-man version of King Lear, but what they wound up with is the playfully absurd My Perfect Mind, whose title derives from Lear's self-revelation from late in the play: "I fear I am not in my perfect mind."

The show comes to New York endowed with first-rate theatrical credentials. A co-production of the highly inventive company Told By An Idiot, the Young Vic, and Theatre Royal Plymouth, it has been lovingly written and shaped by its stars and its director Kathryn Hunter. Ms. Hunter is the perfect person to round out the triumverate, as she herself is an amazingly versatile actress, at home with Shakespeare (she was a terrific Puck in Julie Taymor's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Theatre for a New Audience) and with absurdist theater (Kafka's Monkey, Fragments, The Valley of Astonishment). With this creative team, you can just relax in your seat knowing that you are in good hands indeed.

My Perfect Mind takes place on a steeply tilted platform that is full of potential dangers —furniture that won't stay put or that can easily be bumped into, a gaping open trap door, and the sloping surface itself. All of these, of course, represent the world that a stroke victim must maneuver through. Mr. Petherbridge plays both an actor named Edward Petherbridge and King Lear, while Mr. Hunter nimbly leaps from role to role. Among others, he is a dingbat German doctor whose first words echo the opening of Cabaret, Laurence Olivier, King Lear's Fool, a Japanese director, a taxi driver who hauls Mr. Petherbridge from New Zealand to England, and Petherbridge's mother, herself a stroke victim.

For 90 minutes, the pair cavorts through the play that is part autobiography and part zany romp, interspersed with short scenes from King Lear. These scenes are performed with such eloquence that even if you've forsworn seeing yet another production of Shakespeare's masterpiece, you will happily stand in line for tickets should Mr. Petherbridge take on the role in earnest. But for now, there is this joyous marvel of a work. The Inca lament for the dead sun god Atahualpa alone is worth the price of admission.

My Perfect Mind
Through June 28
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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