NEW YORK — “Reason not the need!” King Lear declares. It is the eternally formidable Glenda Jackson who speaks these words in a scenery-shaking growl in the new Broadway mounting of one of Shakespeare’s most durable tragedies. And they prove to be a useful guideline as you try to puzzle out what director Sam Gold is up to on this confoundingly muddled evening.
Productions of “King Lear” have materialized on Broadway only two other times in the past 50 years, and on the evidence of this latest version, which had its official opening Thursday at the Cort Theatre, no one is going to go near this thorny brute of a play there again anytime soon.
Not that Jackson, a Tony winner last season for a revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” isn’t an inspired choice for Lear. She first played him three years ago, in director Deborah Warner’s minimalist production at London’s Old Vic, which I also saw. I later remarked that Jackson was the manliest Lear I’d ever experienced: the kingly vanity and unapologetic self-assurance, dismantled by a gathering fear of mortality and a mind fraying by pitiable degree, made for powerhouse, star-driven Shakespeare.
On this occasion, though, the gimmicks freighting the three-hour tale of the demise of Lear and his household neutralize the enterprise’s emotional intensity. The sharper lines of the drama are smudged out in the service of one awkward conceit or faulty performance after another. The most satisfied customers in the Cort are likely to be those who examine some of Gold’s choices, and reason not the need.
A “Lear” in which you acquire no investment in the fate of pure, constant Cordelia (Ruth Wilson), or commune with poor, mutilated Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell), or begin to grasp the strategic ravings of the disguised Edgar (Sean Carvajal), or even understand what’s at stake in Lear’s impulsive divvying up of his kingdom is an empty “Lear.” You’ll have ample time for distracted reflection as you gawk at the weird walls of gold that set designer Miriam Buether has created, to give an impression of Trumpian excess, or listen as the string quartet playing Philip Glass’s score wanders in and out. At times, the sensation is one of being stuck in a gaudy building that pipes in elegant elevator music.
Gold takes a boldly intuitive rather than scholastic approach with Shakespeare, and in prior encounters, “Othello” with Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo and “Hamlet” with Oscar Isaac, his directorial strokes guided the actors to revelatory illumination. But his ideas on how to provide new contexts for classic plays can be stymied by solipsistic impulses, as occurred two years ago with his disastrous Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie,” an exercise in rehearsal-room experimentalism gone haywire.
In bringing “King Lear” into the Cort, there must have been an assumption that the audience would be intimately familiar with the tragedy’s particulars. That’s because little effort has gone into either creating the impression that all these characters occupy the same space or establishing with any secure command of temporal logistics where we are at any given moment. I am going to spare you an accounting of all the peculiar flourishes; suffice to say that the ordinarily galvanizing scene of Lear on the heath, played here downstage, in front of a metallic wall, evaporates forgettably in a mild, emotionless drizzle.
You don’t even feel much for Jackson’s Promethean struggle. Making her entrance in a sleek tuxedo, courtesy of Ann Roth, the diminutive Jackson — towered over by the likes of Elizabeth Marvel’s Goneril — looks a little like Alfalfa of “The Little Rascals,” minus the cowlick. Like so much else in this aggravating scrimmage of a “Lear,” the dimensions are off.
King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Gold, music by Philip Glass. Sets, Miriam Buether; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Scott Lehrer. About 3 hours 10 minutes. $39-$275. At Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.