Imagine having the World Series described not by sportscasters in prime locations but rather by team members boozing afterward, never having a clear picture of the whole game, just their individual exploits.
That's a rough idea of what "Two Shakespearean Actors" is like. Richard Nelson's play is about the Astor Place Riots of 1849, in which 35 people lost their lives over the seemingly not very burning issue of whether an English actor should perform "Macbeth" on the same night an American was scheduled to do it.
The Englishman was one of the most noted actors of his time, William Charles Macready, on an American tour. The American was Edwin Forrest, one of the leading Shakespearean actors of the day. Most historians agree that the riots had less to do with conflicting ideas about how to interpret Shakespeare than with anti-English sentiment, aggravated by the famines in Ireland.
Nelson has no "thesis" about the riots. Instead he gives us a series of scenes in bars and restaurants, where actors from the rival companies drink and gossip. The petty jealousies, humiliations and idiocies that make up an actor's life fill the foreground, the deaths of 35 people become "noises off."
It is a very witty play, but because it looks at what we consider the major event through the wrong end of the telescope, it never fully comes into focus - except during the final scene, in which the two actors finally meet.
In this case, real life had a greater sense of irony than Nelson, since the two actors never did meet. Here, however, they have an edgy but essentially cordial reconciliation. At one point they discuss preparing for "Hamlet." Forrest says he has been visiting insane asylums. Macready retorts, "You study asylums. I study the play."
This exchange suggests the American and English styles of acting - one oriented toward naturalism, the other toward technique - were already crystallized, but it is a notion Nelson does not explore at length.
As in "Some Americans Abroad," Nelson is fascinated by the power-plays executed in "polite" society. There, the players were tatty academics. Here, they are actors, who lack intellectual gambits to mask their political moves or their snobbism. Their pettiness is at once more transparent and more comic.
Jack O'Brien has given the play a superb production. Among its many virtues is that it is unamplified, a rare pleasure these days.
The play requires a huge cast, and all the roles have been ably filled. Particularly impressive is Brian Bedford as Macready, who seems to have studied condescension as thoroughly as he has the art of acting. Both onstage and off, he is a stunning compendium of pomposities.
This is a bravura performance, though I thought perhaps Bedford was somewhat unfair to Macready as an interpreter of Shakespeare (he makes him thoroughly hollow). He was, after all, a friend of Dickens, and his contemporaries regarded Macready highly.
Nelson, an American, gives the edge to his compatriot Forrest, who is an unaffected man and actor - his intelligence and ego reined in by his egalitarian surroundings. He is beautifully played by Victor Garber. Forrest has none of the virtuoso affectations of his rival, though Garber is strong at delineating the subtler ways Forrest exercises power.
Zeljko Ivanek projects with great finesse the painful comedy of the hapless, constantly humiliated actor who serves as their go-between. Tom Lacy is particularly funny as a blowhard, Eric Stoltz has a winning breeziness as the "hot" playwright Dion Boucicault, and Laura Innes is elegant as his snobbish wife.
Frances Conroy is touching as Forrest's long-suffering wife and Jennifer Van Dyck skillful as his plucky mistress. Tom Aldredge is expectedly strong as the patrician Washington Irving, who urges Macready to go ahead. Graham Winton and Jeffrey Alan Chandler are solid in smaller parts.
David Jenkins' sets are simple but establish the atmosphere of 19th-century New York effortlessly, its moods underlined with great flourish by Jules Fisher's lighting. Jane Greenwood's costumes, particularly in the stage scenes, point up Nelson's comic sense.
Because so much of the dialogue is ostensibly about the theater, "Two Shakespearean Actors" at times seems like an extended in-joke about the foibles of the profession and its poignant, pathetic practitioners.
But the strength of the play is its powerful sense of how little the preoccupations of people in the wings reflect the anxieties and crises being enacted in the spotlight. In this quirky understanding, "Two Shakespearean Actors" is an extremely original and affecting comedy.
When you can weave laughter into terror in the same play, you've done something; and that's what Richard Nelson has wonderfully achieved in "Two Shakespearean Actors," which opened last night at the Cort. It certainly doesn't hurt that, under direction by Jack O'Brien that purses every ounce of relish from the text, he gets brilliantly funny-serious leading performances from Brian Bedford, Victor Garber and Zeljko Ivanek, ably supported by all concerned.
On the night of May 10, 1849, an anti-British mob of the great unwashed of New York City attacked the Astor Place Opera House, where the great British tragedian William Charles Macready was on stage as Macbeth at the same time that his American rival Edwin Forrest was essaying the role around the corner at the Broadway. With cries of "Three cheers for Ned Forrest!," these hordes of patriotic theater critics smashed their way into the Astor Place, bombarded Macready and his company with stones, vegetables and rotten eggs, set the theater on fire, and then rioted through the streets at an ultimate cost of what may have been 35 dead and 100 wounded.
This is the terror part of the Nelson drama.
But "Two Shakespearean Actors" is neither a history lesson nor a tract; it is a comedy wrapped around a knife.
The comedy, which may remind you in part of "All About Eve," is a many-layered loving portrait, or anatomy, or confessional, of the actor's life, or of various and several aspects of the acting life, mostly having to do with ego - in particular the egos of the British 19th-century school of high style trending to fustian as represented by Macready (Brian Bedford), and the American school of energy and swagger as represented by Forrest (Victor Garber). But centuries and countries are not important here; they are not what this play is really telling us.
"We are different actors," says Macready in exhaustion when, having been afforded shelter in Forrest's dressing room at the grim end of this hellnight, he and his American counterpart have come around to semi-courteously mocking one another over their approach to Hamlet. "We are different actors. You study asylums. I study the play."
And there you have it, in, as they say, a nutshell: not just a method vs. a method but vs. The Method. Nor is it that simple. "If my father just died and I had to play Hamlet that night..." says a ruminative Macready. "That would be something to see - but fathers don't die every day," says the American.
That these two gentlemen are both hams, that Macready is a rummy and a snob, that Forrest is an unbearable prig of vanity who flaunts a mistress and compares her soft skin to the cover of his First Folio ("Only one of five in America; she breathes, this book, she lives") with his alcoholic wife sobbing in the background, is also part of the human comedy.
There is Scott the inept (Jeffrey Allan Chandler), who as Cassio to Forrest's Othello has somehow managed to cut his own finger off and left it on stage, and therefore can't go on as Macduff. Scott the bigot and chauvinist, a nasty piece of goods who on the heels of the assault on Macready & Co. at the Astor Place foams at the mouth with: "They should have shot him. He don't belong here. I mean it. Why did we fight two wars?"
There is John Ryder, Macready's sibilant young acting and otherwise hanger-on who happens to know the role of Macduff, and will quietly kill to be introduced to an Edwin Forrest in need of a Macduff. For his part, Forrest flatters this younger man to death, saying he saw his Macduff in Edinburgh ("I can hardly even remember the Macbeth; for that one night the play should have been called 'Macduff.'"). A young member of Forrest's own company hides his ears against this stream of familiar baloney. I cannot imagine a better, more self-effacing, more self-promoting Ryder than Zeljko Ivanek's.
There is Tilton (Tom Lacy), an older, bearded, backbiting actor of Forrest's company, who as the Porter in "Macbeth" gets all mixed up between "Knock, knock" and "Knock, knock, knock" - "the three knocks first or the two knocks?" - and finally, after hilarious trial and increasing error, blows up completely, dismissing the whole thing as hopeless.
There is the huge platter of fruit and cheese burgeoning like a cornucopia, brought in and set down on a table. The actors descend on it like a pack of wolves for five seconds, sweep away, and the platter is bare.
And always and again there is Brian Bedford roaring: "I am not 'any' English actor," apoplectic, magisterial in face and conduct, a gloriously ripe Dickensian performance; and Victor Garber, handsome as the hands of a clock, overweening with pride, but wailing when he has to think about it: "Life's not half as much fun as theater." Unless you're living in this theater, the Cort.
Ham actors may be a horror, but fine actors playing ham actors are almost always a joy. Brian Bedford, cast as the 19th-century British tragedian William Charles Macready in Richard Nelson's new play, "Two Shakespearean Actors," is no exception. Very grand, often pickled and prone to forgetting the end of any sentence well before he has made it to the verb, Mr. Bedford's puffed-up Macready would be right at home in the hapless theatrical companies of "Nicholas Nickleby," "The Dresser" and "Noises Off." Even his version of the actor's nightmare is egomaniacal: when Macready dreams this dream, he does not forget his lines but instead plays all the parts at once.
Mr. Bedford, a British actor who has been a mainstay of Broadway and Stratford, Ontario, over a 30-odd-year stage career, pours a lifetime of both classical and boulevard-comedy experience into this role. In Mr. Nelson's play, Macready is a tired, fading figure who arrives to perform "Macbeth" in the New York City of 1849 only to find his supremacy challenged by a younger local upstart, the first great American Shakespearean, Edwin Forrest (Victor Garber), who is performing his own "Macbeth" elsewhere in town. It's an ugly situation. A symbolic target for enraged nationalistic forces beyond his comprehension, Macready suffers the indignity of less-than-full houses, a pelting with stones and, finally, a full-scale Anglophobic riot that leaves more than a score dead outside the Astor Place Opera House.
Yet in Mr. Nelson's fictionalized retelling of this actual history, and in Mr. Bedford's meticulous performance, Macready never ceases to be human and never becomes the butt of the piece. Though he is always patronizing to his New York hosts (his idea of a compliment is to call Americans "intelligent in an instinctive sort of way"), Mr. Bedford cloaks the snobbery in a rheumy laugh, merry eyes and a glinting smile. For all the outrageousness of Macready's Macbeth -- performed in a kilt with a Lady Macbeth firmly consigned to the upstage shadows -- this babbling ham actor is, finally and all too fleetingly, a tragic figure. When the mob boos and stones him, Mr. Bedford gives a stunned reading of the simple line "They have interrupted my performance!" that conveys the abject terror of another actor's nightmare, an audience's rejection. When the riots break out later, the spent, frightened Macready drifts into a passage from "King Lear" that Mr. Bedford plays for keeps, a fallen giant baring himself to an empty house as "a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man."
People who love the theater will dote on Mr. Bedford, and they will be nearly as fond of Mr. Garber, who is just as good in a much less juicy role. But even if one does cherish the backstage lore and actors' shoptalk that are the currency of "Two Shakespearean Actors," it's hard to shake the feeling that this evening, often diverting and sometimes more than that when Mr. Bedford is center stage, never lives up to its promise. And a lot is promised. The star turns, the fascinating premise, the huge cast that greets the audience in the play's opening moments and the elegant staging by Jack O'Brien all imply that this production, a Lincoln Center Theater presentation at the Cort Theater on Broadway, will have epic ambitions akin to "M. Butterfly" or "Amadeus," or, perhaps more aptly, to the revisionist cultural-historical fictions of E. L. Doctorow. But Mr. Nelson's writing, as epitomized by the prosaic title, rises only sporadically to the scale of everything else.
This disappointment is unexpected, because "Two Shakespearean Actors" is poised to pick up where the author's savage previous comedy, "Some Americans Abroad," left off. As in that play about American Anglophiles agog in present-day England, this one trades in Jamesian themes: the cultural clash between the Old World and the New, the declaration of an independent American artistic identity that is at once brave and vulgar, dynamic and insecure. Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson does not expand upon these points this time so much as reduce them to a simplistic, frequently reiterated duel of acting styles. Macready, representing England, stands for textual fidelity and outward sophistication while the rising American, anachronistically portrayed as an incipient Method Actor, stands for raw energy and the obsessive, inward study of subtext.
Even if this formulation were an accurate picture of the contrast between English and American actors of 1849 -- which it is not -- it still would not be a big enough conflict, or, if you will, metaphor, to explain the bloody Astor Place riots. But no other explanation, real or imagined, is forthcoming in "Two Shakespearean Actors," which consistently whets the audience's curiosity about its subject only to leave it unsatisfied. The political, economic and xenophobic forces that lead to the evening's anticolonial conflagration -- sentiments that have resurfaced, less violently, as recently as the Jonathan Pryce-"Miss Saigon" contretemps -- remain hinted at but unexamined. Eventually the riots are all but forgotten, except as explosive noises off, while Mr. Nelson brings Macready and Forrest together for a sentimental, historically dubious display of noble theatrical fraternity that seems to belong to another play.
Since the personal stories of the title characters, notably Forrest's sad offstage juggling of a wife (Frances Conroy) and mistress (Jennifer Van Dyck), are also sketchily told, "Two Shakespearean Actors" often lacks emotional as well as intellectual bite. Anecdotal in structure, it is almost always at its best when it is dealing simply, parochially and sometimes uproariously with the theater of missed cues, onstage mishaps and offstage egos. The one conspicuous exception is a wildly overlong Act I sequence in which the rehearsals of the Forrest and Macready productions of "Macbeth" are supposedly contrasted but, accents and costumes aside, prove to be more alike than not.
There and elsewhere, Mr. Garber offers evidence that he can act Shakespeare at the same high level at which he acts everything else. (Having done a mock Otello in "Lend Me a Tenor" and a mock Macbeth here, maybe it's time for him to try the real thing.) His Forrest, a creature of the stage tortured by private demons Mr. Nelson never illuminates, is a commanding matinee idol who can make even self-pity and arrogance charming. In a company full of outstanding actors in cameo roles that never quite pay off, the better assignments, all executed superbly, belong to Zeljko Ivanek as a perennial understudy torn between two companies and countries, Eric Stoltz in a lecherous and opportunistic portrait of the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault and Tom Lacy as a cynical supporting player nearing the farcical end of an unsung career.
Like Mr. Nelson's play, Mr. O'Brien's production evinces an overwhelming affection for the theater. As bathed in silken simulated gaslight by Jules Fisher, the simple, wood-beamed set by David Jenkins allows the action to swing gracefully from auditorium to backstage to dressing room to tavern; the sense of being taken into a hermetically sealed theatrical world of the Victorian age is completed by the Cort Theater itself, a gilded relic closer in origin and spirit to 1849 than 1992. Though Mr. Nelson is an American writer, "Two Shakespearean Actors" was first produced two years ago with a different cast and director by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon. Rather than risk another riot, I will assume that the English production was far inferior to our own.