THE LION IN WINTER by James Goldman; directed by Hap Erstien; scenery by Don Gardner and Lee Mills; with Bob Brenner, Mimi Norton, Mark Levine, Kurt Orwick, Normwn Aronovic, Patricia Procaccino and Paul Morella.
At the King's Jester Dinner Theater through Feb. 23.
The proliferation of Washingtondinner theaters has gotten so out of hand lately that it seems only a matter of time before someone proves once and for all that a good dinner and good theater can be had at the same establishment.
If and when, the King's Jester Diner Theater -- surely the most refreshingly eccentric local specimen of the movement -- could be the place. Located in downtown Silver Spring, the King's Jester has already boggled the dinner-theater mind with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and other similarily serious works, while dipping but rarely into the usual pool of Rodgers and Hammerstien, Neil Simon and naughty English sex farces. Now the King's Jester has come forth with a lively and likable production of another bizarre-sounding choice of a play -- "The Lion in Winter," James Goldman's portrait or domestic rows in the court of England's King Henry II.
Actually, the choice is less adventurous than it sounds. Despite the historical subject matter, "The Lion in Winter" is a rowdy melodrama that would fit quite nicely on the nighttime soap opera schedule with "Dallas" and "Flamingo Road" -- if its characters merely traded their royal togs for western shirts and designer boots.
"Henry! I can't be your mistres if I'm married to your son!" protests the Princess Alais (pronounced like plain old "Alice") in an early bedroom confrontation,
"Why can't you?" asks the King. "Johnny won't mind."
"Johnny" is the same Prince John familiar to us as the ogre who made life so difficult for Robin Hood and his Merry Men (while King Richard was off crusading or being waylaid in an Austrain prison). Set in 1183, the John, Richard, their brother Geoffrey, their mother Eleanor (of Aquitaine) and, of course, Henry himself. Goldman's entertaining notion was to portray this royal tribe as a family of shouting, feuding, pining, pouting, snapping, plotting, everyday folks.
There are long streches when "The Lion in Winter" is hard to take seriously -- when, for example, virtually the whole family is secreted in a bedroom where Richard and France's King Philip are resuming a youthful love affair. But in the second act, the intrigue and counter-image reach heights of wonderful dizziness, and the King's Jester production, directed by Hap Erstein, is fully as robust and entertaining as the material.
The production is at its absurd best, in fact, just when the play is -- in its depictions of the fracases between Henry and his jailed, discarded, but still formidable Queen Eleanor. As Henry and Eleanor, Bob Brenner and Mimi Norton are a strong pair who command our interest and present a convincing, involving hate-love relationship. Norman Aronovic, Kurt Orwick and Mark Levine also give vigorous performances as the back-stabbing sons.
At King's Jester, the dining room and the auditorium are separate, and the audience moves into conventional, table-less rows for the play itself. Even so, the management found it necessary to put some of Saturday night's standing-room-only crowd at a highly inconvienient angle to the action, and so to work so many chairs into the limited floor space that shorter theatergoers probably found it hard to see over the heads of taller theatergoers. Which goes to show that King's Jester's unusual dinner-theater formula seems to have found a following.