"King Charles III," British playwright Mike Bartlett's "future history play" that was nominated for a Tony Award last year, begins with the funeral procession for Britain's longest ruling monarch: Queen Elizabeth II (who, I hasten to add, is still thriving today with her corgis, pocketbooks and unusual hats).
Death has thrown the royal family into a tizzy. I don't have to tell you much about this gang. Most of you know egg-heady Charles and unshowy Camilla, dependable William and glamorous Catherine (who goes by Kate) and, of course, hot-water Harry better than I do. But the play, written in a buttery blank verse, isn't all that interested in the gossip that's regularly splashed on the cover of the Daily Mail.
The charade of politics is the focus here. A governmental crisis arises when scrupulous Charles refuses to accept that his function as king is purely ceremonial. Out of fear of abridging democracy, he declines to sign a bill that places restrictions on the press.
The conflict is almost mathematically worked out by Bartlett. When I saw "King Charles III" in New York, I admired its ambition and facility, but left feeling that the play (which won the Olivier Award) was, as the British say, too clever by half.
The fine-grained production that opened at Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, however, has elevated my opinion. Michael Michetti's staging doesn't oversell the drama. The iambic pentameter isn't delivered with percussive éclat but spoken with conversational formality. These larger-than-life figures are intimately approached. They actually seem not-too-distantly human.
"King Charles III" is a talk play, but you can hear the characters thinking. Jim Abele, in one of the finest performances I've seen this year, reveals the inner workings of Charles' noble mind. The Prince of Wales' conscience is visible in the way his stare keeps narrowing into a squint.
In one sense, the longstanding heir to the throne is miscast as king. Charles, a puttering intellectual, might be better suited as a curator of the British Museum or a leader of an architectural or environmental advocacy group. His integrity is pretty much disqualifying for the game of modern politics: Like Lillian Hellman, he cannot and will not cut his conscience to fit the year's fashions.
Mr. Evans (a polished J. Paul Boehmer), the British prime minister, wants his bill rubber-stamped. The media, in his view, have run amok. "We cannot risk another murder case/Where phones belonging to the dead are hacked," he explains to Charles, not understanding why a man whose first wife was killed escaping the paparazzi would have any objections to hemming in the tabloid vultures.
"You do not think a principle is here/At stake, that something vital to our sense/Of freedom, both as individuals/And country whole, is being risked?" Charles inquires. He's not impressed when Evans responds citing polls.
For Charles, the people want their elected leaders "standing up/And making choices they themselves cannot." He decides to meet with the head of the opposition (Carie Kawa, capably taking on the role that is designated as male in the script). This breach of tradition — Elizabeth never felt the need to give equal time to the prime minister's opponents — raises alarm bells and ushers Charles into a fray he's not ideally equipped to handle.
Meanwhile, Harry (Dylan Saunders), his ginger good looks marred by a perpetual hangover, is desperate to escape the rituals of mourning the family is supposed to observe. During a night out on the town, he meets Jess (Sarah Hollis), a feisty art student with a few skeletons in her closet. Her dubiousness about him makes this uncommon commoner even more irresistible. Before you know it, Buckingham Palace has two media firestorms to snuff out: the standoff between Charles and Parliament and a more salacious scandal involving nude pictures of Harry's new girlfriend.
Kate (Meghan Andrews), the canniest of the royal crew, decides it's time to take matters into her own hands. A master of image management, she enlists husband William (an appealing Adam Haas Hunter) to confront his father before his stubborn actions undo the monarchy. William is very much his father's introverted son, but Kate is a force to be reckoned with (much like Williams' mother, Diana, who haunts the palace). As Charles' authority is challenged, Camilla (Laura Gardner) can only protest from the sidelines.
The second half of the play is not quite as gripping as the first, as Kate's rise necessitates Charles' fall. Some of this is endemic to a plot that grows exceedingly chatty. But it's also an acting issue: Abele's Charles is more compelling than Andrews' Kate is commanding. When he's shunted to the side, the play seems like a country without a ruler.
To her credit, Andrews doesn't turn Kate's wiliness into outright villainy. The contours of the character are softy etched. Such modesty and restraint are humanizing, but at the cost of some theatrical crackle.
Still, the production is a resounding success. David Meyer's set creates a posh ambience with wooden pillars and handsome carpeting. Elizabeth Harper's lighting and Peter Bayne's original music and sound design manufacture the necessary pomp and circumstance. Alex Jaeger's costumes elegantly sort out the characters.
But it's Abele's performance in the title role that endows "King Charles III" with tragic gravity. That there's no place for Charles' dignified leadership is a loss that touches us deeply on this troubled side of the pond. Through his resonant acting Abele reveals that integrity, in art as much as in politics, can exist only when heart and mind respond as one.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘King Charles III’
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 3
Information: (626) 356-7529, www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Follow me @charlesmcnulty