Ah, Christmas at home in the 12th century with Henry II and family. Dinner, a little tree-trimming... and threats of fratricide, patricide and war, fueled by marital malice: What could be cozier? (“What shall we hang, the holly or each other?” asks Henry).
James Goldman’s fierce and funny play of high stakes family dysfunction doesn’t entirely catch fire at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, but it’s quite an enjoyable outing nonetheless.
King Henry (Ian Buchanan), while still hale, is getting on in years and his three sons have an avid interest in who’s next in line. Brilliant and devious schemer Geoffrey (Paul Turbiak) comes in a distant third; Henry’s choice is sly, callow, pimply-faced John (Doug Plaut), dubbed a “walking pustule” by humorless and hypermasculine eldest brother Richard Lionheart (Brendan Ford).
Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Mariette Hartley), imprisoned by her husband for plotting against him and given temporary freedom for the holiday, wants Richard named successor. Not out of any excess of maternal feeling — she has little to none — but to best Henry in another of their high stakes games of one-upmanship.
The other players in this volatile mix: young King Philip of France (Paul David Story), demanding that Henry honor the terms of a treaty that includes the marriage of his own sister Alais to Richard; and Alais (Justine Hartley), brought up in the English court as a political pawn, now Henry’s mistress.
As Eleanor goads Henry and fans the flames, the brothers manipulate, intimidate and betray until their father, although professing to like sons who “snap and plot,” disowns them. Henry will have his marriage to Eleanor annulled by the Pope, he rages, marry Alais himself and have more sons. And now the knives, literally, come out.
Goldman’s 1966 play, and subsequent iconic 1968 film with Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, infuses this familial vitriol with humor and the underlying confusion of motivations driven by both love and hate. Directed by Stephanie Vlahos, the accomplished cast is solid, if not altogether integrated in style of approach to the hurts, vulnerabilities and political realities beneath the surface of the characters’ ferocious, often laugh-out-loud funny insults and outrage.
The steel is somewhat subdued in Mariette Hartley’s Eleanor, but not so the seriocomic pathos of a proud, jealous and aging queen who won’t look in mirrors because “quicksilver has no tact,” and who has no qualms about using her children as weapons for payback. Justine Hartley nicely finesses gentle Alais’ inevitable transition to scheming self-interest; Plaut’s John remains a comic caricature of nerdy and needy adolescence.
Buchanan’s Henry, for the most part, comes with suave appeal and a hint of tongue planted firmly in cheek, even in emotional extremity. Moments of alpha male dominance in Henry’s confrontations with Richard and Philip are glimpses of a deeper resonance, as is Henry and Eleanor’s brief, highly charged and affecting interlude of rapprochement.
High marks for the production’s creative framework: the stone chill and depth of set designer David Potts’ tapestry-hung medieval arches, costume designer Kate Bergh’s lavish laced and trailing gowns and belted tunics, Jared A. Sayeg’s subtle lighting and scudding clouds, and Drew Dalzell’s time-bending soundscape that encompasses period music, Bjork and the Velvet Underground.
What: “The Lion in Winter”
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St. (at Cypress), Burbank.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends May 18.
Admission: $20 to $49.
More info: (818) 558-7000, www.colonytheatre.org.