"Oh, my God! What a strange coincidence!" exclaimed Frank Langella in a soft yet still mellifluous gulp recently when asked to affix his mark to a theatre program.
Once upon a time, before there was Lincoln Center Theater, there was The Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, and in its 1968-69 subscription season he starred in a William Gibson play called A Cry of Players, cast as a callow, 21-year-old William Shakespeare, who is married to the eight-years-older Anne Hathaway (Anne Bancroft) but drawn instinctually to a higher calling than conventional domesticity.
It played in rep with King Lear, the play that Langella is just getting around to performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater now through Feb. 9. On alternate nights at the Beaumont back then, Lee J. Cobb reigned supreme as King Lear, the monarch who, to his own ruination, made poor judgment calls on his three daughters. Langella looked in on the performance occasionally, never imagining 46 years later he'd be gingerly negotiating his way down that same narrowing path.
The autograph request went to the back-burner while Langella leafed through the pages of his past with leisurely affection. "Annie's gone — so many of these people are gone now," he said sadly, perusing. "Philip Bosco was in Lear?" he was startled to note on hitting the bio section. "Let's see what picture I was showing off then..."
The publication, more Life-size than Playbill-size, ran cerebral supporting texts on Lear, Shakespeare and Gibson, who, by this point in time, had already given Broadway his best: Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker. Commanding much of Langella's attention was a lavish five-page pictorial feature, "Kings of Lear," showing many of the acting greats who had done their thespian push-ups in the part — Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Louis Calhern, John Gielgud, Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Paul Scofield, Donald Wolfit, Morris Carnovsky, Frank Silvera, even Tommy Rall doing the "King Lear Ballet" from Café Crown — and now Langella, 76 on Jan. 1, finds himself in this company of kings.
He was brought to this precipice by Duncan Weldon, the London producer who once ran the Chichester Theatre Festival, and Jonathan Church, who runs it now. They caught Langella in Tony-nominated form two seasons ago in Man and Boy and, afterward, invited him to do Lear in Chichester. "It was extremely flattering for an American because they'd never had an American there to head up a company," Langella said, "but I told them I didn't want to do it — that I had a notion in my head to play a great female character. I've always wanted to play a great female role, and I told them a couple of ideas I had in my head, but they were not sure how that would work on their audience. I think what they were thinking was I wouldn't sell tickets unless I did one of the great Shakespeares, so I said, 'Well, then I'm going to pass.'"
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