THE PLAYING SPACE IS simply a wide, white square of floor. The players move about it with the calculated precision of chess pieces, or wait solemnly in chairs at its edges, silent witnesses to some inevitable tournament. Director John Kazanjian's spare staging of King Lear for New City Theater sometimes illuminates the timelessness of Shakespeare's storytelling, and sometimes seems as stiff as a board game. When someone moves in Kazanjian's barren world, it can look contrived, without the motivation of some connecting emotion. There's an awful lot of grim inactivity before things pick up, but pick up they do -- while the empty spaces continue to heighten the production's weaknesses as well as its strengths.

Chief among both concerns is its monarch. Esteemed theater veteran Clayton Corzatte has a noble sense of the language, and dignity to spare, but lacks a certain devastating gravity as Lear. Kazanjian hasn't pushed him far enough -- his rages and sorrows don't have an ebb and flow. Beginning with the opening fury that banishes his beloved Cordelia (a stalwart Mary Ewald) and shifts the balance of power to her two viperous siblings, Regan (Myra Platt) and Goneril (Heidi Heimarck), Corzatte's king is recognizably human, yet missing a meaty, prideful grandeur.

The supporting cast will evoke very personal responses. For some, Todd Jefferson Moore's nerdy, loose-limbed villainy as Edmund may play as refreshingly original, but it drove me right up the wall; this is not a man who inspires cutthroat romantic competition. Platt makes a more complex traitor than Heimarck's one-note harridan, but Kazanjian has chosen to downplay the sisters' cunning. Corzatte's wife, Susan, is a solid Gloucester, and more rewards come from Stephen Godwin's fine, fiercely loyal Kent, Todd Jamieson's wounded Edgar, and Peter Crook as a haughty Cornwall (he would have made a great Edmund).

Kazanjian wrangles his players with fleet efficiency (though the show's second half wanes some, until the bodies start piling up), and despite whatever doesn't work, he surges the evening forward with his clarity of action and respect for the sheer thrill of the tale -- has there ever been a more deliciously hair-raising moment in theater than Cornwall's eye-plucking cry, "Out, vile jelly!"? Essentially, then, New City's production is King Lear -- no more, no less.

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