PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: At King Lear, Hair Care, Shakespeare and Stars

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: At King Lear, Hair Care, Shakespeare and Stars Playbill On-Line introduces a new column by longtime Playbill magazine contributor Harry Haun, who takes you into the starry crowds at Broadway opening nights.

From Top: Christopher Plummer and Jonathan Miller, Lucy Peacock and Brent Carver, John Guare and Susan Stroman, Cherry Jones, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward
From Top: Christopher Plummer and Jonathan Miller, Lucy Peacock and Brent Carver, John Guare and Susan Stroman, Cherry Jones, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward Photo by Aubrey Reuben

One wild-haired Shakespearean graybeard gave way to another wild-haired Shakespearean graybeard Thursday night, March 4, when Christopher Plummer's King Lear took command of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, until recently the SRO home of Kevin Kline's John Falstaff and the Henry IV company. These two characters never crossed paths in the works of the Bard, but don't be surprised if they don't come up in the same Best Actor category at Tony time in a few months — a first for New York theatre.

Mad old King Lear, with his maddening daughters and their murderous husbands, falls somewhere between a touchstone and a watergauge for great actors—the valedictory stop—and Plummer made the most of it. Not only did he do his own acting, he did his own hair, which flared out stiffly at the sides in a foolish Pappy Yokum flourish. It takes a lot to camouflage Plummer's pronounced, career-long, man-of-distinction mien, but this 'do did the job quite effectively—a modest miracle of backcombing, slight hair extensions creatively matted and, of course, hairspray—and his art took it from there.

Plummer took a bow for both at the fancy first-night reception that followed the opening. It was held on Avery Fisher Hall's orchestra level, and made for an elegant, eminently commutable stroll past the pond which separates the two Lincoln Center structures.

Canadians were out in full force, along with the usual Lincoln Center elite, this being a co-presentation of Lincoln Center Theatre and the Stratford Festival of Canada. The assembled cast reflects a neat mix of both countries, Lear and his Edgar (Brent Carver) flying Canadian colors.

On the Yank side of the ledger were many of the family of artists whose works have marked the stages of the Beaumont and the Mitzi Newhouse: playwrights Wendy Wasserstein, A.R. Gurney Jr. (whose Big Bill currently occupies the Newhouse under Lear), Alfred Uhry, John Guare; composer Stephen Flaherty; director-choreographers Susan Stroman and Kathleen Marshall; actors Michael Cumpsty, Merle Louise (Carver's mom in Kiss of the Spider Woman), Cherry Jones. Down Under's Tony-winning Zoe Caldwell represented both countries, being the director of Plummer's Macbeth and the widow of Canadian-born producer, Robert Whitehead. Auxiliary glitter: Plummer's daughter, Amanda; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and a sunburst of Shuberts, Gerald Schoenfeld and Philip Smith. "He's a thrill to watch in rehearsal," Carver said of Plummer. Lear is the first time they have acted together on stage—they have a previous relationship on film, father and son in Atom Egoyan's Ararat—and it is the first time New York theatregoers have seen Carver without a song in his heart. He last appeared at Playwrights Horizons as the musical Marcel Proust in My Life With Albertine, and he was last on the Beaumont stage as Parade's Tony nominated lynch victim. His Tony-winning Broadway bow was in Kiss.

It's a rarity, shrugged off as coincidence, for a high-profile nonprofit company to present two Shakespeares in a row, but nothing out of the ordinary for Bernard Gersten, who co-produced the show with Andre Bishop for Lincoln Center. "It's called a festival," airily declared Gersten, who learned the ropes from Joseph Papp down at The Public where back-to back Bards did (and still do) constitute the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Jonathan Miller ("He prefers Dr. more than Sir," tactfully asided a Lincoln Center flack) directed the play as he did in Stratford. Himself gray-haired, distinguished-looking and well Beyond the Fringe, he is the project's primary mover—and the person Plummer credits with the persuasive argument to do the piece in the first place: "We wanted to do something together, and he said, 'Well, you'd better play Lear before you croak!'"

That's the no-frills version. Dr. Miller's account of the conversion is a bit more elaborate and prickly. "We had a long talk about two or three years ago in which he said he wanted to do a comedy," he recalled. "He wanted to do Volpone. I said, 'No, no, no, no. If you want to do a comedy, you'd better do King Lear. It's the best comedy he ever wrote.' The tragedy takes care of itself, but only if you address yourself to what is comic about it.'"

And that goes for the comedic hair care that constitutes The Lear Look. Dr. Miller gives Plummer full credit for that, but it did take coaxing to get him on the right track. "I spent a lot of time trying to get him not to wear something that looked like 'Lord of the Rings.'"

Plummer is no stranger to plummeting the comic possibilities of Shakespearean tragedy. In fact, the third of his five Tony nominations was for the dandified Iago who sorta left tire tracks over James Earl Jones' Othello. When Jones attempted to get Plummer on the same somber page, the latter replied, "But, my dear boy, it is a comedy..."

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—Harry Haun is staff writer for Playbill magazine, and has been attending Broadway opening nights since 1975.