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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Lion in Winter’

The Roundabout Theater Company has found a genuine

lioness for the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the first Broadway

revival of James Goldman’s "The Lion in Winter." Whatever

the longstanding pros and cons are regarding this 1965 comedy-drama

about the feuding Plantagenets and Capets, circa 1183, Stockard Channing

is the one to make the stage quiver and quake, as the wife of Henry

II. Amidst a torrent of semi-historical, semi-hysterical ranting and

threatening, Channing lays siege to the royal household, and shows

no mercy.

There is much to entertain us in this raucous play in which the imprisoned

Queen, who has led a series of rebellions against the King, arrives

for the Christmas season and brings along her savage wit and lusty

unrepentant heart. To experience the sheer force that Channing puts

behind Eleanor’s "mommy dearest" front, as well as behind

her inescapable despair is quite thrilling and a needed boost for

this otherwise disappointing staging.

For those who are familiar with Katherine Hepburn’s performance in

the great(er) film version (Peter O’Toole was Henry) or who remember

the role’s originator on Broadway, Rosemary Harris (opposite Robert

Preston as Henry), Channing may not appear to plumb the depths of

the character with the same versatility or variety. But there is no

denying that Channing effectively scorches the surface of Eleanor

with the clawing vengeance of a lioness scorned.

Goldman’s glittering witty prose, a genial mix of the high-minded

and the low-brow, and to my mind not well enough regarded by many

critics, does a great job of propelling the story from one explosive

climax to another. Henry’s three sons connive and deceive one another

in a constant barrage of almost literal backbiting. This all happens

under the watchful eye of the ever-resourceful Eleanor, who proves

without losing much time that she can connive and deceive them all

in her quest to keep Henry in tow.

Not easily out-foxed or out-witted, Henry flaunts his power and his

young French mistress Alais around the court only to learn from Phillip

King of France, that he must relinquish her in marriage to Richard,

his eldest son, fulfilling an old treaty requirement between the nations.

The play is a whirlwind of vicious verbal assaults that at times becomes

a little too relentless to be believed. That it remains somewhat of

a miracle of heightened reality is thanks to Goldman’s never less

than amusingly trenchant text.

There is also a pomposity and pretentiousness to the proceedings that

tends to make you think you are watching a dramatization of events

with some historical relevance and importance instead of a contemporary

look at human follies and universal flaws in a remote and distant

setting. It is just this arrogance and pith with a sprinkle of old-fashioned

salacious humor that can make "Lion" such good theater, if

not good history.

The fine actor Laurence Fishburne (he won the Tony for "Two Trains

Running") is Henry. But one only wishes that the bravura demands

of the role appeared to suit him as easily as does the fit of the

royal robes. Despite his commanding presence and resonating voice,

Fishburne is no match in tone or temperament for Stockard. Fishburne’s

performance is not to be entirely dismissed, however, as he shows

us a conflicted man capable of many loves, changing his bedside manner

as often as he switches favors from one son to another.

Watching Fishburne dash from passionate caresses with

the youthfully seductive Alais (a nice but unexceptional turn by Emily

Bergyl) into the loving clutches and fangs of Eleanor is not short

of being fun. Even with shortcomings, Fishburne makes for a decidedly

robust survivor in this house of royal intrigues, as he at no time

loses sight of the intrinsic sense of humor in his character that

keeps the king sane as well as sharp, even in his darkest moments.

Channing’s wry asides are as menacing as her maneuvers around the

feeble and trembling walls of insecurity that are slowly crumbling

around her three sons John (Keith Nobbs), the youngest, scruffiest,

and most immature; Geoffrey (Neal Huff), the most resentful because

he is ignored middle son; and the ever angry Richard Lionheart (Chuma

Hunter-Gault), whose exposed homosexual affair with King Phillip of

France merely adds only one more cause for alarm along with all the

other 812 traumas that happen with lightning frequency during the

event-filled two hours and ten minutes. Considering the astonishingly

wretched acting by the three actors who play these sons, honors go

to Roger Howarth’s mercenary Phillip who had no trouble entrapping

and devouring his prey with glowering affection.

Burdened with such ineffective supporting players, director Michael

Mayer had his work cut out for him keeping the audience in a constant

state of hypertension, a necessity in this play. Undoubtedly Mayer

realizes that the play at its heart is less than meets the ear, so

he keeps the action swirling and the quips coming as fast and as furious

as possible. Michael Krass’ authentic-looking, 12th-century costumes

are admirable, but never flattering to anybody. David Gallo’s castle

interiors are a circling maze of majestic moody chambers. HH

— Simon Saltzman

The Lion in Winter, Roundabout Theater, 1530 Broadway

at 45 Street, 212-719-1300. $60. Through May 23.

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