Friday, February 1, 2019

159 (2018-2019): Review: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (seen January 31, 2019)

“When an Irresistible Force Meets an Immovable Object”

Can’t wait for the books, movies, or plays that will inevitably dramatize the current standoff over a border wall between President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi? Allow me to remind you of another dramatized deadlock involving a political leader and a morally defiant subordinate who won’t give him what he wants. I refer, of course, to British playwright Robert Bolt’s 1960 A Man for All Seasons, now in a stodgily respectable revival at Theatre Row’s Acorn. 

Carolyn McCormick, Michael Countryman, Kim Wong. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Set between 1526 and 1535, the play dramatizes the historical stalemate between King Henry VIII (Trent Dawson) and Chancellor Sir Thomas More (Michael Countryman), in which the robust, young monarch, desirous of a male heir, wishes to annul his marriage to the barren Catherine of Aragon so he can wed Anne Boleyn.
Trent Dawson, Michael Countryman. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
More, a devout Catholic lawyer and scholar, however, prefers to keep his lips zipped instead of agreeing to Henry’s insistence, or the merciless Thomas Cromwell’s importunities, that the king of England has supremacy in such matters over the pope. It’s an obstinacy, based on the voice of conscience, for which he eventually pays with his head. As for the Trump-Pelosi impasse, history will soon enough determine whose head, at least metaphorically, will roll.
Harry Bouvy. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Christa Scott-Reed’s uninspired staging for the Fellowship for Performing Arts (The Screwtape Letters)—a group devoted to plays supporting a Christian worldview that audiences can find both entertaining and enlightening—simplifies the casting by having three actors play two roles. Carolyn McCormick is both Lady Alice More and a Woman; John Ahlin plays Cardinal Wolsey and Sigor Chapuys; and Sean Dugan covers William Roper and Archbishop Cranmer,Theresa Squire’s modest period costumes help differentiate one role from the other. 
Michael Countryman, Carolyn McCormick. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Most significantly, the revival restores the Common Man (Harry Bouvy). I say “restores” because, foolishly, this important “character,” not included in the 1966 movie version, was cut from the 2008 Roundabout production starring Frank Langella. The Common Man—the role that first brought George Rose to Broadway’s attention, is Bolt’s chorus-like device for tying the play’s ideas to the modern world. Although generally satisfactory, Bouvy is not a Rose by any other name.
Harry Bouvy. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The Common Man is a witty, roguish, fourth wall-breaking fellow who provides narrative information while moving through the action in a succession of minor roles: servant, ferryman, jailer, jury foreman, and black-hooded executioner. Changing his look by taking items from a chest, he’s someone with whose nimble ability to survive audiences can identify. “It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends—just don’t make trouble.”
Todd Cerveris, David McElwee. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Full disclosure: I’ve been attached to the Common Man idea since I directed and acted in The Wages of Folly, Virtue, and Sin, an evening of Shakespeare scenes I put together as a college project in 1962. A Man for All Seasons was then running on Broadway, so, at the suggestion of my professorial advisor, who had seen the play (I hadn’t), I stole the concept.
Michael Countryman, Todd Cerveris, Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Bolt’s play, like so many modern historical dramas based on British history (think Wolf Hall, which covers much the same territory but from Cromwell’s perspective, and with more dramatic panache), invites the usual pseudo-Shakespearean acting. Despite the big voices spouting class-based British accents, Bolt’s lush yet accessible language eventually drowns you in its verbiage, even when spoken by such full-throated players as Ahlin, Kevin Morrow as the Duke of Norfolk, or Todd Cerveris as Cromwell. Each has moments when rhetoric turns to bombast.
Michael Countryman, Kim Wong. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Michael Countryman’s low-keyed More lacks the brilliantly crafted, charismatic integrity and granular emotionalism of Paul Scofield’s magnificent original (preserved in the movie). However, Countryman’s depiction of More’s conflicted soul is more humanly affecting and down-to-earth—particularly when relating to his wife and daughter (Kim Wong)—than Langella’s pompously dull version of 10 years ago.
Kevin Morrow, Kim Wong. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Steven C. Kemp’s Tudor-influenced setting serves efficiently, with minor changes, for the many locales, but its bland ordinariness won’t win prizes for aesthetic value. Aaron Porter’s lighting has some singular moments, as during the execution scene, and John Gromada’s music and sound design offer decent contributions. Overall, though, Scott-Reed’s blandly conventional production resembles something one might have seen in a college or community theatre 50 years ago.  

As noted, we may one day have a Trump-Pelosi drama, with objections to a wall replacing objections to a divorce. But until we get A Woman for All Seasons, even an only so-so revival of A Man for All Seasons can get you thinking about dilemmas in which an irresistible force meets an immovable object.   


Acorn Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 3

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