A Saint on Broadway

“When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

The New York area has been seeing ads for Broadway’s A Man for All Seasons on Broadway.  Now Amanda Shaw and Nathaniel Peters give the play two thumbs up at First Things blog. And in doing so, they provide an excellent critique of the excesses in Robert Bolt’s play, and the modesty of director Doug Hughes’ production.

“The strength of Bolt’s script and Doug Hughes’ direction is that neither turns the play into a lecture on politics,” they write of this play about the patron of statesman that is playing in an intense election year.

They appreciate the production’s minimalism. “Hanging before the set, in place of a curtain, is a large copy of Hans Holbein the Younger’s study for The Thomas More Family, a rough sketch not unlike the vague, monochrome picture of More that most of the audience carries into the theater. Behind Holbein’s picture looms a post-and-beam skeleton of a house, which serves as the production’s single set. The costumes, like the set, give us enough to know that we are in Tudor England, but they do not steal the show.”

They note that “The plot unfolds as we watch More, played by Frank Langella, encountering those who love him and those who oppose him, and in the play’s most heart-rending scenes those two are the same.” (“I am faint when I think of the worst that they may do to me,” utters More to his wife in prison. “But worse than that would be to go with you not understanding why I go.”)

They like the lead, and they like the secondary actors, as well. They praise Zach Genier (as Thomas Cromwell) with the high praise of being “deeply satanic” in the role. They even like Henry VIII’s (Patrick Page’s) goatee. It “gives him the aura of a young investment banker lining up the pieces for a major acquisition, unwilling to admit any impediments.”

But the review is at its best when it defends the play against the New Yorker and the New York Times.

“A Man for All Seasons turns the extraordinary into the ordinary,” writes John Lahr in the New Yorker’s review of the Hughes production.  “Caricature, not character, is the play’s idiom,” adds.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley agrees: “Mr. Bolt’s script — which clearly and intelligently outlines Henry VIII’s epochal war with the Roman Catholic Church over matters marital—neglects to include several essential ingredients for a compelling dramatic hero. Like conflict, doubt, vacillation, and change.”

But I’ll let you go and read how they do it, and how they get to their concluding line:

“It is conscience that makes men — ‘even at the risk of being heroes.’”

— Tom Hoopes