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Young Jean Lee's adventurous if flawed meditation on loss steadfastly holds the audience's interest.

Amelia Workman and April Matthis in LEAR
(© Blaine Davis)
Described as a response to Shakespeare's King Lear, playwright/director Young Jean Lee's LEAR, currently performing at Soho Rep, appropriates some of the characters of the original play (although not Lear himself) for a radically structured mediation on loss and on the selfishness beneath love in human nature. Thanks to stretches of textured poetic writing, the show's bizarre novelty, and the wow factor of David Evan Morris' set, the play steadfastly holds the audience's interest even if it's not always as thematically coherent or emotionally fulfilling as one would wish.

During the first hour of its 90-minute running time, the show sustains a pattern of alternating sometimes snarky, highly artificial group scenes with spotlit interior monologues. In the group scenes, the characters, who speak in heightened contemporary language and are dressed for the Elizabethan court in Roxana Ramseur's lavish costumes, generally cope flippantly with loss. Two sets of children -- Regan (April Matthis) and Goneril (Okwui Okpokwasili), and Edgar (Paul Lazar) and Edmund (Pete Simpson) -- have sent their fathers off to die and now lay about the throne room digging at each other and making a show of their self-recriminations. Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia (Amelia Workman) soon joins them, spouting claims of inner peace and acceptance that the playwright slyly satirizes.

There are wonderfully vivid flashes of savagery even in the characters' pleasantries -- Lee's gift for lacing language with startling juxtapositions keeps the ears open -- but the overwhelming selfishness of these characters wears thin very quickly in the deliberate absence of dramatic movement. The monologues, strikingly written and performed, afford us momentary glimpses into the depths of the characters' souls, but they are disconnected from the rest of the play's action by design.

Then LEAR takes a stylistically jarring turn in the final half-hour. The house lights come up and one of the actors enters the audience space. "What are we doing here," he asks us in challenge. While the play needs something at this point to bring its slow stewing to a boil, a scene appropriated from Sesame Street, in which Big Bird learns about the finality of death, turns out to be less interesting on stage than it probably seemed on paper. The shift from ruminating on loss as experienced by high-culture Shakespearean characters to one from public television seems arty just for the sake of it.

Despite its flaws, LEAR is the kind of experimental theater that should be applauded for its risk-taking and for its commitment to its ideas. It's clearly the work of a playwright with a unique voice who isn't afraid to break the rules.