"I could listen to you lie for hours," says Henry II to his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, during one of their frequent tussles in "The Lion in Winter." In this play the characters do little else but lie to each other, but they do it with style. This James Goldman play was first produced on Broadway in 1966 and made into a celebrated movie; I think its reputation has faded a bit since then, but the Out of Pocket Productions presentation now running at MuCCC reveals a play very much worth revival. Kudos to director Stephanie Roosa for choosing it, and staging it very ably.
As the play opens, it is Christmas 1183. Henry II (Fred Nuernberg) is 58 -- elderly by medieval standards. This particular lion is feeling rather wintry, and thinking about his possible successor among his three sons: Richard (Adam Petzold), Geoffrey (Brad Craddock), and John (Zak West). Also on his mind are his mistress Alais (Ruth Bellavia), who also happens to be betrothed to Richard, and his wife, Eleanor (Patricia Lewis), visiting for the holiday (he has imprisoned her, due to her inconvenient habit of leading civil wars against her husband).
Henry wants the youngest, John, to succeed him; Eleanor wants their oldest, Richard. They are all prepared to scheme, scratch, bite, bitch, and connive until they get what they want. Goldman brings all of them, and also King Philip II of France (Carl Del Buono), to Chinon Castle to celebrate Christmas, and have at each other.
Royal bad behavior, particularly of the European variety, has long been an appealing subject for movies, plays, and TV; it can be very entertaining to see grand people be nasty to each other. Goldman's pace and tone are brisk and bitterly witty; with all these quaintly dressed folks hurling quips at each other, a few scenes in "The Lion in Winter" sound like a Noel Coward rewrite of "Richard III." The play itself is kind of an odd duck, very unusual for an American playwright in the mid-1960's, with no references or parallels to politics of the time that I can see. But Goldman obviously enjoyed the challenge of making these characters compellingly theatrical, and on the whole he succeeded. Whatever else it may be, this play is a good time for actors.
I won't spoil the various checkmates, counterplans, and reversals, which are as engaging as anything you'd see on BBC America (and probably presented more clearly). But I can say that in Goldman's telling, all the political scheming is the result of strong and frustrated love between husband and wife, parents and sons, and brothers. They love each other, but they have loved power and power plays just as much, and it has turned them into political animals who nearly destroy each other. The ending of the play is elegiac, as Henry and Eleanor change from a magnificent royal "we" to a middle-aged couple who start tallying up their mistakes and asking what more there is to life. (It is no surprise that James Goldman also wrote the book for the Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies").
Goldman likes Henry and Eleanor so much that they tend to overshadow the rest of the play. These parts call for local theater royalty, and get it in the perfectly cast Fred Nuernberg and Patricia Lewis. Nuernberg has a sonorous, slightly aged speaking voice that is a pleasure to listen to, and enough of the kingly manner to be a convincing monarch. (This part was originally played on Broadway by the Music Man himself, Robert Preston.) He definitely has a match in Eleanor, whose many emotions, from steely charm to maternal concern to brooding over the age, are hit perfectly by Lewis. The rapport between these two actors is evident from their first moment together onstage, and their last scene is one of the best bits of acting you'll see on a local stage.
Adam Petzold is a Richard who can barely keep his anger in check (as we learn in the course of the play, he has a lot to be angry about), and Zak West makes an appealingly bratty adolescent John (far from being the "walking pustule" described by Richard). Geoffrey is the typical overlooked middle child; Goldman doesn't draw him in much detail at all, but Brad Craddock fills in the lines well to create a cold, intellectual character. The three men create a convincingly scary energy in their scenes together; it's not hard to believe that the brothers can't stand each other.
Ruth Bellavia is a lovely and touching figure as Alais and Carl Del Buono makes an interestingly enigmatic Philip II, who is as political an animal as the rest of them; I wished Goldman had given both these characters a bit more to do. But to paraphrase Eleanor, "What High Middle Ages historical comedy-drama doesn't have its ups and downs?" When the royal family is in full cry, "The Lion in Winter" has a satisfying spring in its step.