Frank Langella and Zach Grenier
in A Man for All Seasons
(© Joan Marcus)
Frank Langella and Zach Grenier
in A Man for All Seasons
(© Joan Marcus)
With three Tony Awards on his shelf and a scrapbook of rave reviews, there's little question that Frank Langella is one of this country's finest actors. But Langella takes his artistry to new heights -- and could easily earn his fourth Tony - - with his consummate portrayal of Sir Thomas More in Doug Hughes' sturdy revival of Robert Bolt's Tony-winning 1961 play A Man for All Seasons, now at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre.

Even with an actor of Langella's stature (or Paul Scofield's, who won both the Tony and later the Oscar for his portrayal of More), this nearly-three hour talkfest can admittedly be tough sledding for some, as it favors intellectual debate over action and philosophical discussion over swordfighting. Yet, while certain scenes initially seem superfluous, most pay off in Bolt's careful construction, and despite a slight overabundance of words, many of them not only demand to be heard -- but have gained relevance in these politically troubled times.

Little matter, indeed, that the play recounts historical events from the 1500s. Even after being appointed England's Lord Chancellor, the staunchly Catholic Sir Thomas not only refuses to help his good friend and sovereign, Henry VIII (a gloriously mercurial Patrick Page in his single, extended scene) get a divorce from first wife Catherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn -- but ultimately never converts to the Church of England -- because he refuses to give up his faith. Still, religion is only half of the equation. An attorney, More wrongly believes strict adherence to the letter of the law will protect him from punishment -- and death -- fully underestimating how power can be abused and loyalty breached.

Appearing in almost every scene, Langella moves effortlessly from studied deference to such authority figures as his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey (Dakin Matthews, in what amounts to a luxurious cameo) to familial love for his long-suffering wife Alice (a heartbreaking Maryann Plunkett), his strong-willed and smart daughter Margaret (an effective Hannah Cabell), and future son-in-law Will (a passionate Michael Esper), to the moral superiority he turns against chief nemesis Thomas Cromwell (a marvelously creepy Zach Grenier), the main architect of his undoing. Yet, Langella ensures that the pieces of the man are always all part of a coherent whole -- that More, in fact, never changes with the "seasons."

Moreover, his line readings, whether for a few choice comic bits or the occasional searing monologue, are rarely less than flawless. Just notice the huge guffaw he gets out of the world "Wales" in his final exchange with the weak-willed Richard Rich (a slightly unsteady Jeremy Strong). And his subtle physical transformation towards the play's end, when More has been jailed for a year, is remarkable.

While no one else should probably plan on going home with a trophy next spring, Hughes' casting choices, as indicated, mostly succeed. George Morfogen is solid in the rather small role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, while Peter Bradbury makes the most out of Sir Thomas' not-altogether-trustworthy servant, Matthew. However, Michael Gill is a tad underwhelming as the mostly good-hearted and dim-witted Duke of Norfolk and Triney Sandoval drastically overdoes the Spanishness of Senor Chapuys.

But Hughes' most significant -- and most surprising -- failure was allowing the usually brilliant Santo Loquasto to construct a large unit wooden frame set that obscures some of the action from certain seats, most glaringly More's final moments. Conversely, costume designer Catherine Zuber has contributed her now-usual first-rate work for the production, adding what little color there is to the often-drab proceedings.

Still, Langella could stand on a bare stage in his underwear and transfix the audience. That he doesn't have to do so here is simply icing on the metaphorical cake.