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Theater Review : Handsome 'Lion in Winter' a Bit Too Tame

November 16, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marital strife, generational warfare, adultery, sibling rivalry, betrayal and even homophobia. Some things never go out of style.

By investing 12th-Century England's Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, with contemporary voices and psychological insights, James Goldman's 1966 drama "The Lion in Winter" illuminates archetypal patterns in families, politics and the turbulent unions of men and women.

At the Pasadena Playhouse, the casting of real-life spouses Tom Troupe and Carole Cook as the heads of Goldman's dysfunctional royal family was a cute idea. But the results prove a mixed bag in a handsome but safe production that hits many of the high notes while under-serving significant aspects of Goldman's richly layered text.

The unqualified triumph here is Cook's portrayal of Eleanor, the feisty queen imprisoned for her relentless schemes to secure Henry's throne for her favored son, Richard the Lionhearted (Maury Ginsberg). Equally adept with Eleanor's brisk sarcasm ("Not now, dear--mother's fighting"), vengeful rage and poignant meditations on losing her husband to a younger woman, Cook brings memorable clarity to this complicated figure.

As Henry, Troupe has a harder time of it. A character no less complex than his queen, Henry is a warrior-king, torn by polar impulses toward barbarism and civilization. Troupe's easygoing demeanor and thin, high-pitched voice work against him. He is hardly the sort of brash, swaggering monarch who can give lessons in bellowing to the young king of France (James Calvert)--kvetching lessons, maybe.

Though unconvincing as a roaring lion, Troupe fares much better with Henry's anguish at the treason of his beloved son John (Gordon Greenberg), and in his tenderness toward his young mistress (an agreeably assertive Jennifer Aspen). Not surprisingly, he's best in his soul-searching, love-hate dialogues with Eleanor, which play with the authenticity of a couple who've gone the distance.

But relations between the royal couple and their wayward sons are disappointingly shallow. Director David Galligan seems content to envision the princes as weak-willed, arrested development cases, not unlike the returning offspring in the sitcom-like "Alone Together" he staged at the Pasadena Playhouse last year.

It's a glossed-over treatment that leaves much of the tangled familial knots in shadow, particularly Ginsberg's less-than-aggressive Richard (even his homosexuality gets little more than farcical attention). While Greenberg's John is appropriately dim-witted, he's far too kempt for the slovenly, bullying coward the other characters describe. Jay Underwood's cold, resentful Geoffrey is the most congruent performance, in part because he's meant to be the most self-effacing of the sons.

Impressive production values give the piece a solid foundation--Gary Wissmann's revolving, multilevel stonework set is impeccably detailed, and costume designers Zoe DuFour and Dawna Oak have clad Eleanor in sumptuous robes that contrast with Henry's "woolly sheep dog" style. Kevin Mahan's generally effective lighting has an annoying compulsion to dim during the closing lines of each scene.

Brisk pacing counters the play's length, though sometimes at the expense of important beats. Henry's moment of triumph over Calvert's arrogant King of France lacks the required pause for its significance to register.

Curiously blunted as well is the seething potential for violence so crucial to the period--these people did not carry swords and daggers for ornamentation. Yet even the final armed confrontation between Henry and his sons is half-hearted--it smacks of an emasculated revisionism that poorly counterpoints Eleanor's feminine vitality.

Nothing a shot of testosterone wouldn't fix.

* "The Lion in Winter," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 and 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.; Nov. 21, 8 p.m.; no performance on Thanksgiving Day. Ends Dec. 18. $33.50. (818) 356-PLAY. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes. Tom Troupe: Henry II

Jennifer Aspen: Alais

Gordon Greenberg: John

Jay Underwood: Geoffrey

Maury Ginsberg: Richard Lionheart

Carole Cook: Eleanor

James Calvert: Philip

James Goldman's play. Directed by David Galligan. Sets by Gary Wissmann. Lighting by Kevin Mahan. Sound by Frederick W. Boot. Costumes by Zoe DuFour and Dawna Oak. Production stage manager Elsbeth M. Collins.

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