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Nature Studies

John Lithgow (foreground) in The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear, directed by Daniel Sullivan with scenic design by John Lee Beatty, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park July 22 through August 17. Photo by Joan Marcus

John Lithgow (foreground) in The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear, directed by Daniel Sullivan with scenic design by John Lee Beatty, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park July 22 through August 17. Photo by Joan Marcus

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE  |  Nature is such a pronounced theme in the poetry and plot of “King Lear” that it’s surprising to walk into the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and see the surroundings obscured by John Lee Beatty’s dominating, monochromatic wall. (Beatty, who is mostly known for lavish interiors and finely wrought details, takes a minimalist approach here with sticks stuck in fabric.) When one considers that Nature to the Elizabethans often represented order that could be upset, the wall becomes a metaphor for man’s futile attempts to impose his own order on the world—this failure sets up the conflict and the tragedy.

In the opening of the play, King Lear seeks to divide his kingdom among his three daughters as their inheritance and to keep peace. His two eldest—Goneril and Regan—get their portion by flattering their father. When the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to lie, she is banished, and the nature of the family and succession is destroyed. The nature of the court is intrigue and political maneuvering and with Lear no longer in control, fighting soon consumes all the characters. Lear, unable to find a home with his elder daughters, is abandoned to nature and a violent storm and soon goes mad. Several subplots involving loyalty and family legitimacy swirl around all of this, but it is only when the conflict between good and evil has played out that the balance of nature can be restored.

Competition and power games in plays both old and new.

Lear is a star part, and in this production John Lithgow is extraordinary. Other actors playing Lear have consumed the play and eclipsed everyone else on stage. Lithgow shows remarkable restraint, conveys a rich inner life, and very much inhabits the world of the play, which makes his Lear one of the most moving I’ve seen. This Lear connects with the other characters. His interactions with his Fool and Kent, a banished nobleman who disguises himself to stay in Lear’s service, are powerful, and it’s easy to understand why these people would follow this Lear in his descent in their efforts to save him.

Annette Bening gives a fine performance as Goneril. She is regally evil and sexually predatory with the bastard Edmund, who looks for a time as if he’ll get all the power. Like Lithgow, she’s grounded and never cartoonish, always a risk with this part. Jessica Hecht as Regan seems afflicted with middle child syndrome until she lashes out with violence. It is surprising, unexpected, and powerful. Cordelia is the hardest role among the daughters as she’s gone for much of the play and has to be noble, but Jessica Collins does it well. Jay O. Saunders as Kent is perfectly matched with Lithgow and handles what slight comedy there is in the role very well.

King Lear
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Tues-Sun 8 p.m. through August 17
Free
Ticket distribution information publictheatre.org or 212 539-8500
3 hours with one intermission

Sex With Strangers
Second Stage
305 West 43rd Street
Tues-Thurs 7 p.m.; Thurs, Fri 8 p.m.; Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m.
$75
2st.com or 212-246-4422
2 hours 20 minutes with intermission

Understatement, as with Beatty’s set and the acting, is the key to the success of this production and its artistic integrity. Directed with great control and keen grasp of the text by Daniel Sullivan and with spectacular lighting by Jeff Croiter, video design by Tal Yarden, and Druidic costumes by Susan Hilferty, the play and the story have seldom seemed so clear or immediate.

Particularly with so many Lears in recent seasons, it may be hard to muster the interest to go through it again. This one is more than worth it. Sullivan and his company tell the story simply and directly—never shortchanging the epic nature and grand guignol inherent in the play. This is a definitive production of “King Lear” for our politically charged times that is as insightful as it is engrossing.

For those, like me, who constantly bemoan the disappearance of the “well-made-play” and the feeling that too many new scripts are simply weak screenplays plopped on the stage, there is cause for celebration. Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” now at Second Stage is smart, brilliantly plotted, and entertaining.

The beautifully intersecting themes touch on art, commerce, power, and how all of these change people. Ethan has written a best-selling book based on his blog chronicling his year of sex with strangers. Olivia wrote a literary novel that failed and has written a new one. Paralyzed by the fear of another failure, she is pathologically protective of the new work. Ethan wants to write like Olivia, and Olivia wants Ethan’s success. What happens between them is sexually charged, fascinating, and emotionally chaotic.

Not surprisingly, Ethan is deeper than the shallow persona he created to pander to the market, and Olivia is far more ambitious and cutthroat than she would like to admit. Eason’s sharp writing and deep understanding of the characters is what makes this so engaging. The play is hilariously funny when Ethan’s grasp of social media, youthful exuberance, and confidence clash with Olivia’s reserved and cerebral approach to life. It is moving when the tables are turned and we see real people in believable situations. The interplay of sex and power and ensuing complications are not new in literature, but the freshness and originality of the storytelling and the precision of the construction make this play remarkable. It is a trenchant examination of personal identity in a world where truth and fiction are often created, indistinguishable, and essential to success. Ethan embraces a contemporary world in which art and the artist inseparable and commercial success often depends as much on the celebrity as the work. Olivia struggles with that world.

David Schwimmer has directed with a deft hand for both the comedy and the more melancholic elements. There isn’t a false moment in the play or the performances. Anna Gunn is outstanding as Olivia. She beautifully inhabits the shy and somewhat broken woman whose confidence and passion are awakened by Ethan. Billy Magnussen is every bit her match as Ethan, capturing the confidence of easy success and the conflict with the artist he would like to be come. The characters are both brutal and merciful to each other over the course of the play. Gunn and Magnussen negotiate these changing dynamics effortlessly.

What is ultimately so surprising and exciting about this play is that while it might appear to be a light summer comedy, it’s really a literate, thought-provoking piece of social criticism that is also irresistible fun.

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