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Theatre in Review: A Man for All Seasons (Fellowship for Performing Arts/Theatre Row)

Carolyn McCormick, Michael Countryman, Kim Wong. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

When I was a boy in Catholic school, I thought I understood saints: They were merely people of superior virtue -- chastity, charity, prayerfulness, or what have you. The older I get, however, the more elusive they seem, their essential qualities no more visible than the air. And the more one reads, it is increasingly obvious that, far from the one-dimensional figures drawn for the consumption of the young, they have been, by and large, an unruly, willful lot, given to upsetting the status quo and thoroughly capable of sassing the Being who inspired them. One thinks of Teresa of Avila, thrown from a carriage and mired in mud, looking heavenward and saying, "If this is how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few."

Lest you think I have a pious turn of mind, let me add that the theatre is responsible for bringing up the subject just now. Jessica Dickey's ludicrous The Convent, currently at A.R.T./New York Theatres, treats the great Catholic women mystics (Julian of Norwich et al.) as a team of life coaches loaded with advice about speaking up and leaning in. Much more interesting is Robert Bolt's 1961 drama, A Man for All Seasons, now in revival at Theatre Row, which recounts how Sir Thomas More's head ended up on the chopping block, following his refusal to ratify Henry VIII's annexation of the English church for his own political purposes. Henry, you will remember, was in desperate need of an heir. Katherine of Aragon, the queen, failed to comply, producing one stillbirth after another. Having originally maneuvered for a papal dispensation to marry Katherine -- she was, after all, his brother's widow -- Henry tried to obtain an annulment, paving the way for the much younger -- and presumably more fertile -- Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII -- himself mired in political and temporal intrigues -- took a dim view of this plan, and thus was born the Church of England.

More achieved his status as a martyr and saint -- they are not the same thing -- by declining to publicly endorse Henry's actions, gambling that his silence would guarantee his freedom. In A Man for All Seasons, he holds his tongue even as family, friends, and enemies press him to speak his mind. What drives the play's action is More's determination not to take a stand. To this end, he employs a battery of legalisms of the sort favored by today's politicians, parsing every word with such care that no one can claim to know his private thoughts. He pointedly fails to answer direct questions, deflects his interrogators with pledges of loyalty to the throne, and shuts out even his wife and daughter so that they may not be forced to testify against him. All but cornered on the question of the primacy of England versus the Vatican, he notes that "the apostolic succession of the pope" is "a theory, yes. You can't see it; can't touch it; it's a theory. But what matters to me is that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it." To his baffled onlookers, he adds, "I trust I make myself obscure."

You will find little or nothing in A Man for All Seasons about More's theology and how it informs his life. (This, for the purposes of the play, may be a good thing. More may not be the cold-eyed fanatic with a taste for torture that Hilary Mantel portrays in Wolf Hall, but he didn't shrink from spying on Protestant heretics, some of whom suffered the lash or the rack thanks to his interventions.) Instead, Bolt's well-constructed, often-witty drama is a kind of manhunt. Henry, sensing a spiritual nature superior to his own, requires More's approval to salve his troubled conscience. More, in return, employs every trick in the book to protect his oath -- which, to him, is indistinguishable from his self, indeed his soul.

This insistence that a political lie would represent self-destruction is easier to grasp if one remembers that More exists in a pre-Descartian world in which body and soul are indistinguishable. He thinks; therefore, he is. When, trying to avoid exposure, he takes the seemingly unimaginable decisions to resign his appointment as Chancellor of England, his rather dull-minded son-in-law, Roper, congratulates him on making "a noble gesture." The comment unleashes a tidal wave of fury. "A gesture?" More thunders. "It wasn't possible to continue, Will. I was not able to continue. I would have if I could...I'm no street acrobat to make gestures! I'm practical!" The conflict at the heart of A Man for All Seasons is that of a man living in an era in which total loyalty to king and church are assumed, and rarely, if ever, in conflict. (Indeed, to a man of his century, it might well seem unthinkable.) Throughout the play, More struggles to render both unto Caesar and God -- a task that, finally, proves impossible.

At the same time, we see More constantly avoiding the overtures of others -- including his ulterior, side-shifting son-in-law and the oily, insinuating Spanish ambassador -- who would make him into a symbol of Catholic resistance to Henry. The intrigues in A Man for All Seasons are many and varied; through them all, More knows the price of his soul, even if he refuses to disclose it.

I'd like to report that Christa Scott-Reed's production is more than passable, but, like More, there are oaths to which I cannot swear. Michael Countryman is a solid, if slightly colorless, More, and though he captures the elegant contours of his character's arguments, he isn't as robust or witty as one would like; More was, after all, very much a man of the world who consorted with the celebrities of his time. Harry Bouvy is solid as the Common Man, the play's narrator, who provides a skeptical, and very contemporary, counterpoint to the central drama. Kevyn Morrow is overhearty at first as More's friend Norfolk, but he gains stature later on, when he becomes enmeshed in a squalid frame-up attempt involving an alleged bribe. But Todd Cerveris' Cromwell and Trent Dawson's Henry are lacking in stature and period carriage, and the other roles are handled competently but unexcitingly. A consistently bright spot is Carolyn McCormick, for my money one of the most underappreciated actresses in New York; if her take on Alice, More's wife, is rather more glamorous than usual, she imbues her scenes with bursts of fire, revealing remarkable courage as the family's fortunes decline precipitously. She and Countryman make something heartrending of More and Alice's final encounter, just before his execution.

Most grievously, the production lacks the sense that the fundamental underpinnings of the More family's existence are being pulled away as he comes ever closer to imprisonment and death. This may be due in part to the rather spare production design. Steven C. Kemp's two-level unit set works well enough, but sometimes one wishes for more of a period feel. Costumes might have supplied a sense of pageantry, but Theresa Squire does away with the doublet-and-hose approach for the men, using contemporary pieces to hint at the 16th century, and, at times, the actors seem to be clad in lounging pajamas; the women's costumes are much more authentic and attractive. Aaron Porter's lighting takes the precise measure of a clandestine meeting held in candlelight, a firelit pub interior, and other locations. The outstanding contribution is made by John Gromada, who has fashioned original music that strongly suggests the Renaissance style; he also has provided a battery of effects, including the passing river, chimes, voices in a pub, and trumpet flourishes announcing the arrival of royalty.

If, like me, you've seen the likes of Philip Bosco and Frank Langella as More (or even the film with Paul Scofield, who so brilliantly created the role in the West End and on Broadway), this production can't help but disappoint. If you've never seen it, a visit might be indicated, especially if you're interested in More. In any case, Bolt takes a most sensible approach, elegantly tracing the intrigues that brought down More, while touching only very, very lightly on the vision of God that put him in fatal opposition to a king. Saints are mysterious beings, and the playwright was smart to understand that. -- David Barbour


(31 January 2019)

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