James Goldman’s historical play, "The Lion in Winter," has sparkling dialogue, precipitous and perplexing changes of mood rocketing from the sublime to the sadistic and a plot that is tricky, terrifying and terribly funny.
The drama, which opened on Broadway in 1966, closed after only 83 performances though it starred Robert Preston as King Henry II, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Christopher Walken as Philip, King of France. But it’s easy to understand - such a cerebral play could not compete with the glitz of Broadway spectacle.
Fortunately, in 1968, "The Lion in Winter" was turned into a film that earned the drama its deserved recognition. The film won three Academy Awards, including an unprecedented third one for Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor opposite Peter O’Toole’s Oscar-nominated Henry II.
Box office success and critical acclaim brought renewed attention to "The Lion in Winter" and led to many successful stage productions, including a Roundabout Theater production starring Stockard Channing and Laurence Fishburne.
This season, the Heights Players have decided to have a go at Goldman’s formidable work. The script has been entrusted to director David Keller, making his main stage directorial debut after appearing in many Heights Players productions including "Sweet Charity," "Beau Jest," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
Keller has assembled a cast that includes Heights Players veterans Susan Faye Groberg ("Fiddler," "Forum," "Beau Jest") as Eleanor and John E. Kelly ("Man of La Mancha," "Kiss Me Kate," "Carnival") as Henry.
Keller has also called on the skills of set designer Gerald Newman to re-create Henry’s court, and costume designer Suzanne Hall-Fritsch to dress the cast in tunics, boots, fur-trimmed dress and the ubiquitous swords. Both do an excellent job of setting the tone and the scene.
"The Lion in Winter" takes place during Christmas 1183, when Henry II, King of England, has summoned his family to his castle in Chinon, France.
Henry has decided to announce his successor to his wife, Eleanor, whom he has imprisoned in a remote castle to keep her from fomenting rebellion in his kingdom; her favorite, and their eldest son, Richard the Lionheart (Brian Faherty); his favorite, their youngest, John (Jonathan O. Sessler); and their middle son, Geoffrey (Stephen Heskett), whom everyone despises.
Also present are Henry’s mistress, Alice Capet (Susanne Curtin), and her brother, Philip, King of France (Chandler Williams), who is determined that Henry give up Alice and hand her over to whoever will ascend to the throne upon Henry’s death.
As the play progresses, it becomes obvious that as much as Henry loves Alice, he loves power more. And as much as Eleanor still loves Henry, she loves her children - all ambitious and obnoxious - more.
The encounters between king and queen are a series of challenges, feints, compromises and reversals, all delivered with wit, insight, humor and the extraordinary touch of irony from which no one is exempt.
"Of course he has a knife. Everyone has a knife. It’s 1183 and we’re all barbarians," Eleanor retorts when the action gets nasty.
Groberg and Kelly, who have previously been married in the Heights Players’ production of "California Suite," once again clash wills and produce wonderful fireworks. Eleanor begs, wheedles and manipulates. The more powerful Henry, despite having the upper hand, is often putty in Eleanor’s own capable hands. Mixing passion with prudence, he almost triumphs, until fatherhood intervenes.
Faherty, Sessler and Heskett make each son despicable in his own delightful way. Richard is arrogant. John is craven. Geoffry is sly. They are all unworthy of wearing the crown they will do anything to get.
Curtin and Williams are quite substantial in their supporting roles. Alice is winsome and wily enough to almost hold her own. Philip has all the anger of an injured son but none of the fortitude he needs to avenge either his or his father’s honor.
"The Lion in Winter" is not a difficult play to produce. There are no major scene or costume changes or technical problems to try an actor or a director’s soul. But the play is not without its pitfalls.
Without actors who are disciplined and sensitive, the wide range of emotions, sudden shifts in direction and constant undertone of self-mockery will lose many in the audience. The sheer nastiness or self-interest of almost everyone will make the audience lose sympathy. And without a director with a consistent vision, the great volume of verbiage will wander into aimless rambling.
The Heights Players’ "The Lion in Winter" is blessed with both - a talented director and actors.
"The Lion in Winter" plays until April 15, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sunday 3 pm. Tickets are $10, students and seniors $8. The Heights Players’ theater is located at 26 Willow Place. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.