As Nazi bombs rain down on the surrounding town, a bedraggled theatrical troupe touring the English provinces tries to muster its meager resources for a performance of "King Lear," despite the dubious condition of its star.
Like everything else in "The Dresser," Ronald Harwood's eloquent and literate play about life in the theater, the company's choice of "Lear" is packed with densely layered associations and ironies. The shadow of Shakespeare's darkest tragedy weighs heavily on the acting company, and on none more than Norman (Marc Grady Adams), Harwood's effete, alcoholic title character.
A 20th-Century version of King Lear's Fool, Norman serves as valet, confidant and guardian to an aging, decrepit monarch--the troupe's reigning actor-manager, a pompous thespian addressed only as "Sir" (Richard Carlyle). As Sir's body fails and his wits desert him, Norman finds himself playing nursemaid as well, often fussing like a parent over a recalcitrant child. "No, Sir," he clucks as his master begins applying blackface makeup, "not Othello--it's Lear tonight!"
Betty Garrett's sensitive, focused staging for Theatre West/Friel Productions expands Harwood's theater world to a microcosm of politics at large, as the various company members vie and even grovel for their leader's attention and favor. All except Norman, whose privileged status outside the power structure gives him license to speak openly, even when it means voicing difficult truths to Sir and the other actors.
In a crisply laundered portrayal, Adams nails Norman's delicacy as well as his cattiness, especially when it comes to backstage gossip. "No pain, that's my motto," he chirps before taking another swig from his flask. But there is plenty of pain ahead, and Adams poignantly renders Norman's tragedy as he pays the ultimate price for a lifetime of subservience, when even the simple acknowledgment he craves is denied him.
As Sir (like Lear, an ego without boundaries whose final insights are sadly limited), Carlyle's performance is effective at times but incomplete. He captures the weepy, self-pitying dependency that sparks the critical chemistry with Norman, but lacks the power and grandeur of a man who lives to see people around him cower. There's no trace in him of the bearing and stature of a classically trained English tragedian of the period, and the result is often like watching Lloyd Bridges stand in for Sir John Gielgud.
* "The Dresser," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hollywood. Fridays, Saturdays 8 p.m.; Sundays,5 p.m. Ends Oct. 23. $15. (213) 851-7977. Running time: 2 hours,5 minutes.