Jenny Sterlin, Alan Cumming, and Brendan Titley in <i>Macbeth</i>
Jenny Sterlin, Alan Cumming, and Brendan Titley in Macbeth
(© Jeremy Daniel)
Without question, Alan Cumming is toiling mightily upon the stage of Broadway's Barrymore Theatre in the National Theatre of Scotland's version of William Shakespeare's Macbeth. For just under two hours, Cumming paces and races around Merle Hensel's expansive, green-tiled mental-hospital set as an unidentified patient who, for reasons never stated, takes on all the roles in the Bard's so-called "Scottish Play." It's the kind of virtuosic turn (complete with a nude scene or two) that practically demands audiences to rise to their feet the second the last word is uttered, even if they've been napping through most of the proceedings.

Meanwhile, those audience members who have remained completely awake might rightly question whether the whole enterprise was worth the trouble of sitting through. If you don't know the play at all, the helpful synopsis in the program may be your only chance of completely following the plot, in which the initially weak-willed Macbeth decides to fulfill the three witches' prophecy of becoming King, with tragic consequences for pretty much everyone in his orbit. Conversely, should you be familiar with the piece — which has been given countless New York outings in the past two decades — Cumming's approach doesn't really lend a new understanding to the tale.

It's not just cuts to the text that lead to some confusion. Cumming switches characters so quickly that even his skillful attempts to differentiate them can fail. He affects a slightly higher voice for the scheming Lady Macbeth, employs a humorously fey British accent for King Duncan, and holds a child's doll whenever speaking the words of Malcolm, the play's eventual hero. But here and there, one cannot be completely sure who's speaking. In a few scenes late in the play when the previously silent doctor and nurse (played by Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, respectively) start reciting some of the minor roles, one begins to wonders if a more standard version of the play might not have been more effective.

Still, there's no denying that Cumming knows how to plumb the depths of despair as few actors do. His renditions of Lady M's "Out, damned spot" speech as she descends into madness, Macbeth's gorgeous "Tomorrow and tomorrow" monologue after his wife's death, and Macduff's mourning of "all my pretty ones" as he learns of his family's murders are all nothing short of masterful. Meanwhile, as the seemingly mad patient cowers in a corner with eyes full of fear and nothing coming out of his mouth, Cumming breaks your heart.

Moreover, codirectors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg have found plenty of showy moments for Cumming, from dissecting the entrails of a dead bird to furiously washing a child's sweater in a bathtub (a clue perhaps to who the patient is) to a bone-chilling episode inside that tub, projected on the three video screens that flicker on and off above the stage. Unsurprisingly, the actor not only doesn't waste these opportunities, but he bites into them like a man who hasn't eaten in days.

Whether Cumming will walk off with his second Tony Award — besting Nathan Lane or Tom Hanks — is something we will not know for another several weeks, but it won't be for lack of trying.