Kevin Kline and Kristen Bush in King Lear
(© Michal Daniel)
Kevin Kline and Kristen Bush in King Lear
(© Michal Daniel)
Perhaps it's Kevin Kline's well-groomed, snowy beard that initially gives The Public Theater's current production of King Lear, directed by James Lapine, the air of a Shavian play. Or maybe it's the Jess Goldstein outfit that looks as if it came from a haberdasher on London's fancy Jermyn Street. Probably, it's the two in tandem. But since George Bernard Shaw thought highly of both William Shakespeare and himself, he likely would have approved of an interpretation that conjures Captain Shotover and Heartbreak House in its earlier stretches rather than the foolish, intractable monarch the Bard introduces.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because Kline's authoritative take on Lear contrasts with the portrait of bombastic advancing age he rendered two seasons back as Falstaff in Lincoln Center's Henry IV. Kline is compellingly business-like to start, and he is never less than conscientious as Lear. Yet, while delivering some of the Bard's poetic arias passionately, he isn't presenting a completely cohesive characterization.

Still, Kline is the most pressing reason to see this production, which eventually feels as flat as the plain across which the blind Gloucester (Larry Bryggman) is led by his estranged son Edgar (Brian Avers).

Lapine comes up with many intriguing ideas over the next three-and-a-quarter hours, some of which work and some of which don't. His truest -- and loveliest -- inspiration is a silent prologue during which three young girls (Paris Rose Yates, Nicole Bocchi, Talicia Martins) -- who look as if they stepped out of John Singer Sargent's "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" -- sit center stage and construct a map of the England that Lear is about to divide among his offspring. The trio clearly represents the pre-adolescent Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and they return more than once in Lear's reveries of the children his grown daughters had once been.

Another standout idea is the passionate kiss Regan (Laura Odeh) bestows on Goneril's steward Oswald (Timothy D. Stickney). She intends him to relay her commitment to that conniving and seductive bastard Edmund (Logan Marshall-Green). Unfortunately, the aggressive display is undercut by Odeh's choice -- made presumably in cahoots with Lapine -- to turn the usually haughty, scheming Regan into a sniveling, giggling flibbertigibbet. It's one thing not to do what's expected with a character, but it's quite another to turn her inside out.

Some of the best inspirations come from set designer Heidi Ettinger, lighting designer David Lander, and sound designers Dan Moses Schreier and Phillip Scott Peglow. When Lear is condemned to the blasted heath, Schreier unleashes some frightening blasts. A back wall splits, spilling rocks on the upstage floor. Ettinger also drops a set of gauzy curtain on which Lander throws flickering lights suggesting torrents of rain. It's all very effective. Lapine has also convinced his sometime collaborators Stephen Sondheim and Michael Starobin to contribute evocative music to the proceedings.

Yet, something in Lapine's production keeps failing to catch fire, and it doesn't take long to figure out what the problem is. This Lear is as well spoken as can be hoped for at the Public -- where often enthusiasm outstrips accomplishment -- but the understanding and articulation this ensemble brings isn't nearly enough to raise the level of performance above that of standard dysfunctional-family drama.

The single most galvanizing turn is Marshall-Green's Edmund. Handsome as an Abercrombie & Fitch model, Marshall-Green -- when imploring Nature to stand up for bastards -- has flare beyond the flaring of his nostrils. In another production, his playing so shamelessly to the crowd would seem like mere grandstanding, but it's welcome here.

Michael Cerveris' loyal Kent, at first wearing an unconvincing wig, also has presence. Piter Marek does well as the noble, briefly-seen France. On the other hand, the usually reliable Bryggman doesn't distinguish himself with this bland Gloucester, nor do Kristen Bush as Cordelia or Angela Pierce as Goneril find either warm or chilly regality. Although Avers gives Edgar the old college try, he remains a mite collegiate.

Perhaps while these actors were trying to find inspiration in the physical staging, Lapine wasn't sufficiently inspiring them. And there's the rub. If the actors speaking the speeches and meant to be embodying the beloved, if sometimes terrifying figures in King Lear aren't also larger than life, nothing much is going to promote audience catharsis.