“The Lion in Winter” is living proof of the difference between theater and cinema.
When it first opened in 1966, it seemed too odd for Broadway. Two years later, it was turned into a charming and successful film that won Oscars for its author, James Goldman, and for Katharine Hepburn. Yet now, in its first stage revival, it still seems too odd for Broadway.
Since the play is set in the 12th century and deals with the complicated family politics of Henry II, king of Britain and much of France, this may not seem surprising.
But the real problem is not that the play is about the distant past. It is that Goldman never really decided what he wanted to say about the present.
Successful history plays Shakespeare's "Henry IV" or Brecht's "Life of Galileo" always keep at least one foot in contemporary times. They use past events to shed light on the present.
Films don't have to do this. They can as the movie of "The Lion in Winter" showed create a world that is at once exotic and completely convincing.
But a play needs a way of talking to its immediate audience. "The Lion in Winter" doesn't have it. And even with performers as powerful as Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing in the main roles, director Michael Mayer never manages to create it.
The plot concerns a titanic clash of wills between Fishburne's Henry and his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by Channing. For reasons that are never really clear, he wants their rather pathetic son John to succeed him. She favors the warlike Richard.
Around this relatively simple framework, Goldman weaves a tangled web of treachery. The rival princes plot against each other. The third son, Geoffrey, and the king of France plot against them both. Eleanor tries to use Henry's young mistress, Alais, against him.
If all of this were funnier, wittier or more pointed, it might be gripping. But the language is so banal (Did they really talk about "real estate" and "cookies" in 1183?), the plotting so heavy-handed, that it is like watching a game of chess.
Mayer seems to have found it difficult to decide whether to treat the story as farce and tragedy, as a voyage into the past, or as a parable of the modern American family.
John and Geoffrey, played by Keith Nobbs and Neal Huff, seem more like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors arguing over a line call than princes maneuvering for power. Of the younger actors, only Chuma Hunter-Gault is really convincing.
Yet, as their parents, Fishburne and Channing ooze the regal authority of a bygone world. Fishburne is particularly majestic. You believe at every moment that he is a man who expects to be obeyed. Channing never quite emerges from the shadow of Hepburn's performance. But it is a delightful shadow that's brightened by her grace and humor.
The pity is that these fine actors are locked in mortal combat with a dead beast. For in truth "The Lion in Winter" is frozen stiff.
Who’s afraid of Eleanor of Aquitaine? Pretty much everybody gathered to celebrate an affectionate family Christmas in 1183 at a castle belonging to her husband, King Henry II of England.
The castle is the setting of James Goldman's 1966 play, ''The Lion in Winter,'' now in revival at the Roundabout. And they're to fear this woman, especially as performed with dazzling intelligence and purring seductiveness by Stockard Channing.
Channing's Eleanor is the fastest and most glittering piranha in this family pool. It is not, of course, a warm family Christmas that is question, but a back-stabbing battle for power.
At first, it seems that poor Eleanor has no cards to play. She's been her husband's prisoner in the castle for 10 years, and she's about to lose out in the struggle for the succession to the throne.
Henry wants to be succeeded by his youngest son, the bratty John; Eleanor wants the throne to go to her oldest boy, the warrior Richard.
Complicating matters are the young, handsome and restless King Philip of France and his pretty sister, Alais, long engaged to Richard and for almost as long the mistress of Henry. Her sons hate Eleanor, the oldest declaring that ''you are empty; the human parts of you are missing.''
This is a woman whose power lies not in emotional comfort but in a lightning wit and a flashing eye and an ironic smile. When her husband boasts he never loved her, she retorts, ''Good, that will make this [betrayal of you] pleasanter.''
But she's, in a strange way, a monster with a heart and with a memory - she remembers when her husband used to be as attractive as ''mortal sin.''
The effervescent Stockard Channing brings sparkle, sex and sadness to a very funny role. This is a glorious talent in peak form. Forget Katharine Hepburn in the movie.
Channing does not shine alone. The whole production is alive with personality, feeling and humor, the signature qualities of director Michael Mayer. Mayer, who has in the last season or so directed ''Side Man,'' ''A View from the Bridge,'' ''You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,'' and ''Stupid Kids,'' is in a way the Elia Kazan of today's Broadway.
To Kazan's confrontational electricity and emotion-in-your-faceness, he adds some very '90s flavors of openness and sweetness. Laurence Fishburne's Henry is the largest piranha in the pool. He's massively strong and massively experienced.
In his winter years (50!) he, foolishly, wants it all: He wants to become wise and stop warring (''I blundered into peace'') and anoint his least bellicose son; he wants to annul his marriage to Eleanor and marry the lovely young Alais.
Fishburne gives us a bad father (''You're a failure as a father,'' whines his favorite son) but a father far more able than his variously pathetic and plotting sons. He is also master, up to a point, of his passion for Alais, telling her, ''You're not my Helen.''
Quite well-read (like his poetic wife), he cites Lear and Medea at appropriate moments. Fishburne is a marvelously powerful actor, and he knows how to mitigate his power with melancholy sorrow at life's odd turns. It's a complex and appealing performance.
As Henry and Eleanor laugh together at the end, and vow to repeat the whole performance at Easter, we're genuinely touched.
Winners and losers are seldom the same for long; no alliance, no friendship, no love is to be trusted in this family. There is much hanging of holly, but no Christmas spirit.
''We all have knives, it's 1183 and we're all barbarians,'' explains Eleanor in one of the playwright's too obvious, too comic-book-like satirical lines.
Among the princes, Chuma Hunter-Gault is a solemn, serious Richard; Keith Nobbs is an amusingly self-pitying nuisance as John; Neal Huff never quite conveys what is supposed to be the frigid calculation of ignored middle son, Geoffrey.
As the French king Philip, Roger Howarth moves convincingly from a boyish clumsiness to a power-hungry maturity more worthy of Henry than any quality in his own sons.
''I never loved you,'' sneers this changed Philip to his ex-lover in the English royal family. David Gallo's spare, bare sets, dominated by black Corinthian columns, evoke, in an ironic way, the classical world of Racine. Goldman, though, is no Racine; he isn't even Giraudoux, the French playwright who in the '30s wittily updated Greek myths.
This play, with its very '60s family savagery and cynicism, is really ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'' in wimples. It's derivative and facile, but at the Roundabout it makes grand entertainment.
The revelations have not been pleasant. Plots and counterplots, all within one little family, have been exploded. A shocking sexual secret has been dragged to the surface. A father has cursed his sons, and the sons have responded in kind. War, treason, assassination all hover as serious possibilities. So what does the mother of this unwholesome clan have to say about the latest of its domestic blow-ups?
The summing up is delivered with dismissive cheer: ''There was a scene with beds and tapestries, and many things got said.''
And there you have the essence of ''The Lion in Winter,'' James Goldman's 1966 comic drama of dysfunctional dynasts in 1183 and a work in which arch isn't just something you find in Gothic cathedrals.
The deliverer of that dry precis, by the way, is Eleanor of Aquitaine. And in the revival of ''Lion'' that opened last night at the Roundabout Theater Company, Eleanor is quite happily embodied by Stockard Channing, a whiz at wielding the play's weapons of choice: not maces and lances but poisoned epigrams and piercing sallies. Unfortunately, Ms. Channing is the only person onstage who seems confident of her abilities to deploy such an arsenal. As directed by Michael Mayer, with Laurence Fishburne looking mighty and majestic as Eleanor's husband and foe, Henry II, the production rarely appears to believe in itself. There's a feeling in the air that the performers might at any moment doff their medieval velvets and pelts and head off for a drink to discuss the Oscars.
It's not hard to sympathize. Although a favorite of college and community theaters, ''The Lion in Winter'' isn't easy to pull off with conviction. The more famous film version of 1968, which starred Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, disguised the play's artificial nature with flashy historical settings and the legendary shine of its stars.
In fact, ''Lion'' is as mannered as Wilde and just about as self-conscious as Pirandello, which is not to suggest that it is anywhere near the same league. In recreating a family feud that changed the map of Europe, Goldman, who died last year, chose to avoid the thee-and-thou route as well as the lyricism, fanciful or stately, of Jean Anouilh and Maxwell Anderson. His template instead appears to have been a thoroughly modern examination of a destructive marriage, Edward Albee's ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.''
Like Mr. Albee's George and Martha, Goldman's Henry and Eleanor have turned emotional vivisection into a savage parlor game, slashing away in marital disharmony while admiring each other's skills in doing so.
Of course, the stakes of the games are somewhat different. In ''Virginia Woolf,'' the idea was, among other things, to ''get the guests''; in ''Lion,'' it's ''get the crown,'' not to mention such valuable parcels of land as Aquitaine in France.
This anachronistic wedding of style and subject is kind of ingenious and kind of silly. The biggest problem in the play, which depicts a royal family reunion at Christmastime in a French castle, is that Goldman strains for cleverness in every line.
Some of those lines have a ''Private Lives'' worldliness (''I can't be your mistress if I'm married to your son''); some a collegiate glee (''Well, what shall we hang, the holly or each other?''). Still others reek like spoiled Camembert (''Green becomes you,'' says Henry's mistress, played by Emily Bergl, to Eleanor). Piled thickly on top of each other, these zingers conjure the atmosphere of a feudal Friars' roast, lacking only Dean Martin in chain mail. It is not dialogue that trips naturally off the tongue.
Fortunately, Ms. Channing, rebounding nicely after her misfired performance in ''The Little Foxes'' two seasons ago, is on hand to show us that these lines can be made to breathe, though not without effort. At her best, as in the Broadway productions of ''Joe Egg'' and ''Six Degrees of Separation,'' this fine actress wears wryness as an armor over vulnerability like nobody else.
Here, looking a bit like a low-calorie, mid-period Elizabeth Taylor in Michael Krass's standard-issue royal robes, Ms. Channing delivers Eleanor's fusillade of barbs with a crackle of vengeance triumphant, while suggesting a genuine sigh of regret underneath.
She occasionally falls into campy cuteness, scrunching up her face in self-congratulations after delivering yet another witty blow. But she is also clearly getting off on the pure gamesmanship of the language, which is essential if the audience is to be won over.
Ms. Channing is playing solitaire. There's no denying that Mr. Fishburne, who showed an ease with costume bravado in the recent film of ''Othello,'' looks every inch a king. Whether standing, arms folded, or stretching territorially across a bed of animal skins, he projects a formidable centeredness that extends to his firm bass voice.
He is also strangely detached, though. Even as Henry squabbles viciously with Eleanor and their three sons over who is to inherit the throne, he mostly comes across as an affable, ironic host overseeing a party of misbehaving guests. The wintry lion of the title, this Henry appears to have withdrawn from the fray already, and when he raises his voice, it feels more out of irritation than deep rage or sorrow. This gives Ms. Channing very little to react to, and the stars' big love-hate scenes might have been spliced together from different movies.
Mr. Fishburne at least registers as a solid presence, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast. In addition to Ms. Bergl as Alais, Henry's young mistress, there are Keith Nobbs, Neal Huff and Chuma Hunter-Gault as Henry and Eleanor's three sons, John, Geoffrey and Richard Lionheart; and Roger Howarth as Philip, the young King of France and Richard's one-time lover.
Aside from Mr. Nobbs, who does his usual Generation-X splutter as the peevish, adolescent John, these performers seem to have made no definite choices as to what they think their characters are or how they should behave, and Mr. Mayer has offered no discernible guidance here.
Consequently, the supporting actors look lost and puzzled against David Gallo's gloomy black dungeon of a set. The play's dialogue, when delivered as uncertainly as it often is here, has all the substance of mauve-colored smoke. And when it's just the young fellows onstage, they bring to mind a group of listless patrons in a piano bar, waiting for an electric diva of a performer to come in and wake them up.
That role falls to Ms. Channing, and she fills it as gracefully as circumstances allow. In this production, it's undoubtedly mother who knows best. Now if only someone could find her a family of equals with whom to play her nasty power games.
The 1968 film version of "The Lion in Winter" is a sword that cuts all sorts of ways for the new Broadway revival of James Goldman's play. If the movie hadn't been such a critical and popular hit, the play easily might have sunk into obscurity --- the original 1966 production opened to mixed reviews and flopped quickly. But the picture won a trio of Oscars (one for Goldman included) , and its success gave the play a stature that has kept it in the stock and amateur repertory for three decades.
Unhappily for the Roundabout Theater Co., this first Broadway revival reveals just how much of the film's acclaim was due to the fervid Panavision posturing of a cast that included Katharine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole and a young, astonishing Anthony Hopkins making his film debut. Without such bravura performances, with each psychological nuance registering in eye-popping widescreen, the material isn't terrifically distinguished.
The play is a literary conceit of sorts: The musty historical drama dusted off, dressed up in latter-day neuroses and half-played for laughs. There's a certain rude pleasure in seeing historical figures, normally treated with reverence onstage and in film, taken down a peg or two and exposed in all their squalid naturalness. But Goldman's squalid naturalness is rather artificial: The play's God-you're-a-bitch-but-so-am-I-darling-we're-made-for-each-other attitude is stagy, as is the familiar familial angst that finds all three sons of a royal mother at some point accusing her of not loving them enough in their childhoods. The play's wit is mostly garden-variety sarcasm in chain mail and fancy language , its pretensions to high drama and poetry slightly embarrassing. (King Henry to wife-enemy Eleanor: "You fill me full of pity and terror. What a tragedy you are.")
Among the extremely variable cast of Michael Mayer's production, only the redoubtable Stockard Channing manages to hold her own against memories of her film rival, the Oscar-winning Hepburn. She plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, estranged wife of Henry II (Laurence Fishburne), who has been released from genteel captivity in her own castle to attend a family gathering, where Henry plans to announce which of his three sons will be heir to the kingdom.
Henry's favorite (inexplicably) is the youngest, John, a sniveling bundle of teenage angst played with foot-stamping, nasal snarkiness by Keith Nobbs. Eleanor is allied with Richard, the eldest and strongest, though you'd never guess it from Chuma Hunter-Gault's less-than-lionhearted, affectless performance. (When he and Channing share a scene together, she's acting in a vacuum; the actor, making his Broadway debut, is simply out of his depth.) Middle child Geoffrey (Neal Huff) is the bitterest of the trio, and tries to improve his position by playing everyone against each other.
Everything in the film conspired to elevate the material: the authentic accents from a cast that included Timothy Dalton as the French prince Philip, the atmospheric location filming and John Barry's surging score, the near-hysterical performances that gave a jolt of psychological depth to the backstabbing shenanigans. (Even the trendy-feeling homosexual liaison between Richard and Philip rang true, thanks to Hopkins; it's laughable here.)
Only Channing's performance turns the same trick in Mayer's production. Her role is by far the strongest (Rosemary Harris won a Tony in the original), and she gives it the full benefit of her considerable technique, turning sometimes thudding bits of business into glittering little shards of wit by a kind of acting alchemy. Eyes aglow with mischievous fire, she alternately teases and torments her family as if plucking harp strings for her own amusement. When the stakes are raised in the late going and she's required to take it all more seriously, Channing duly turns on the dramatics, but everybody has a lot less fun.
Fishburne has a regal-sounding voice and a powerful presence, but his Henry is never authoritative enough to counterbalance Channing's charismatic queen; it's hard not to think Eleanor could wipe the floor with him at any moment. Nobbs' bratty John is fun to watch, and Emily Bergl is surprisingly touching as Alais, the king's beloved new consort and a sadly self-aware pawn in this regal tug of war.
The rest of the lackluster cast struggles with varying levels of success to stand out against David Gallo's mud-colored set and to retain their dignity in Michael Krass' unimaginative and sometimes unflattering costumes. (Poor Roger Howarth as Philip plays his gay love scene in wispy linen shift and beige suede boots, an ensemble you might see pictured in Glamour magazine with the word "DON'T!" in screaming type beneath it.)
As comedy gives way to melodrama in the last act, Mayer's production flags noticeably; it's not easy to poke fun at conventional historical drama and then pull it off with the pomp fully intact, which is what Goldman's play attempts. In any case, if you're going to debunk the mythologizing treatment of historical figures, it helps to put forth something authentic in their place. "The Lion in Winter" only substitutes more stageworthy myths, and in this production, they're only intermittently entertaining.