Taking on Shakespeare's elderly tragic hero for the first time in his career, John Lithgow opened on Tuesday in "King Lear" in a new production at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park.
While the Delacorte has seen its share of Shakespearean plays that have been transposed to a more contemporary setting, this "Lear" does something like the reverse -- placing the story in a vaguely stone-age era filled with savagery, poor table manners and hirsute men.
"Lear," which co-stars Annette Bening as Goneril, one of Lear's three daughters, is set to run through Aug. 17 at the Delacorte. It is the Public Theater's second production in Central Park this summer, following "Much Ado About Nothing," with Lily Rabe.
Daniel Sullivan directed "Lear" with an ensemble that also includes Jessica Collins as Cordeila and Jessica Hecht as Regan. (Sullivan staged the well-received Delacorte production of "The Merchant of Venice," with Al Pacino and Rabe, that transferred to Broadway in 2010.)
Lithgow last appeared at the Delacorte in a 1975 production of "Hamlet," in which he played Laertes opposite Sam Waterston in the title role. This fall, Lithgow is set to appear in a Broadway revival of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," co-starring with Glenn Close.
For "Lear," Lithgow has grown a voluminous beard and blogged regularly during the rehearsal process for the New York Times.
Ben Brantley of the New York Times described the new production as "fast-moving if stiff-jointed," adding that it "can feel emotionally numb." But Lithgow's performance "provides windows of shamed, quiet lucidity that allow us to connect, touchingly and fleetingly, with his stark, raving character."
Newsday's Linda Winer wrote that Lithgow brings "an internal coherence" to the character, and this Lear's "fall from petulant imperiousness to yowling primitive is both impressive and agonizing." But the actor "is one of the few satisfactions in this drab, unevenly cast production."
Elysa Gardner of USA Today called the production "disappointing," writing that it "generates about as much excitement as waiting for a pot to boil." The fault isn't with Lithgow, who "is particularly adroit at finding the wry humor in his character's expressions of confusion and woe."
New York magazine's Jesse Green wrote that the production proved "commendable but vague, powerful but stolid: a statue not fully liberated from the stone." Lithgow gives "an intelligent, always beautifully spoken performance," Green wrote, but the staging as a whole "almost entirely lacks the lively small gestures that texturize a play's surface."