October 8, 2008

Apt Time for Themes of ‘Man for All Seasons’

By Elysa Gardner

NEW YORK -- The flexibility and limits of executive power in our government have been the focus of intense debate in recent years, so it seems as good a time as any for the Roundabout Theatre Company to revive A Man for All Seasons (*** out of four). It opened Tuesday at the American Airlines Theatre.

First produced on Broadway in 1961 and made into a classic film five years later, Robert Bolt's play traces the sad, inspiring final chapter in the life of Sir Thomas More, the lawyer, author and statesman who served as Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. More fell out of favor after he refused to sign the Act of Supremacy, which gave the king authority as head of the Church of England to defy the pope and annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, thus freeing his highness to cavort with Anne Boleyn.

Aside from More and, briefly, Henry, none of these characters appear on stage; had Bolt included them, his work might have had less of an arid, academic air.

Instead, two long and hardly brisk acts are devoted largely to having More explain and defend his intellectual and moral philosophy to those who support, challenge and betray him.

It's thought-provoking stuff but not always the most compelling drama.

Luckily, this production -- like the screen adaptation, which starred Paul Scofield -- is anchored by an indelible, irresistible performance. As More, Frank Langella, who earned a Tony Award last year for his nuanced portrait of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, tackles a very different historical figure with similar grace and depth.

Just as he refused to reduce the disgraced president to a villainous caricature, Langella plays More not as a saint (though he was canonized four centuries after his death), but rather as a complex, witty, stubborn and tender man whom we believe when he tells us that he doesn't wish to be a martyr.

Langella has a worthy sparring partner in Zach Grenier, who brings bracing menace to the role of Thomas Cromwell, the rival statesman who slavishly and ruthlessly serves the interests of the king.

Patrick Page's virile, charismatic Henry also proves a commanding foil, and Michel Gill is a gentler but still robust presence as More's virtuous but increasingly frustrated ally, the Duke of Norfolk.

More's feisty but devoted wife and noble daughter are adroitly played by, respectively, Maryann Plunkett and Hannah Cabell, though there's little the actresses or able director Doug Hughes can do to make their parts more than well-crafted stock characters.

In the end, only the leading man can ensure that Seasons sustains its subtle spark, and Langella is, happily, more than up to the task. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>