New York City Theater
"A Man for All Seasons"
American Airlines Theater
It wasn’t called the Patriot Act then, but defying Henry VIII could get you killed. So it was with Sir Thomas More, the martyr who quietly objected to the king’s wish to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to wed Anne Boleyn. More’s acceding to Henry’s wishes would mean going against the Pope and the Church. That he could not do, for it meant mean going against his core beliefs.
More’s stance is detailed in Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” which won the 1962 Best Play Tony and the 1966 Best Picture Oscar and should be still timely today when even decent men have trouble flouting conformity. Yet director Doug Hughes’ production, while never less than intelligent and well acted, lacks blood.
It also lacks the Common Man, a character seen in the original play, but not the film. He spoke directly to the audience, moved furniture and props and became the playwright’s man of irony, a doorway between play and spectators. “It isn’t difficult to keep alive,” he says. “Just don’t make trouble.”
He is missed. Without him, the play is too much a pageant. Indeed one of the two best scenes is with More and his jailer, one of the roles taken by the Common Man. Here as elsewhere, the figure is a stand-in for those who are loath to take risks.
The other outstanding scene is between More and the king. Patrick Page’s monarch is smarmy and charming, patting More on the back one minute, sneering at his stubbornness the next.
Then there’s More himself, played by one of America’s greatest actors, Frank Langella. Saintly but human, he is as loving towards his family as he is sadly bitter towards his betrayers. Langella, with his towering physical presence and his stentorian voice, never forgets that here is a human being who brings destruction on himself and his loved ones just by following his conscience.
“Conscience does make cowards of us all,” said Shakespeare. But More paid with his head for not being merely pragmatic. How many would do the same?
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 26, 2008