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Cumming’s ‘Macbeth’; Tom Murphy’s Grief; 54 Below: Review

July 09, 2012


Alan Cumming is "Macbeth", at Lincoln Center. The one-man show is set in a madhouse. Photographer: Manuel Harlan/National Theater of Scotland via Bloomberg

Alan Cumming spends much of “Macbeth” wearing very little as he roams through a mental ward’s sickly green chamber.

It’s a creepily sinister place with a metal-frame bed at one side, a steel stairway up to a door opposite, and, overlooking it all, an observation window and three TV monitors.

Spycams in the corners record everything.

In a prologue, the Scottish actor strips for two attendants, a man and woman who appear throughout, mostly in silence.

They drop his clothes into bags stamped “Evidence.”

As Cumming acts out Macbeth’s bloody, doomed rise to power, they reappear to give him an injection when things get out of hand.

Created with directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, this National Theatre of Scotland production is launching the Lincoln Center Festival.

Cumming -- Eli Gold on “The Good Wife” -- plays all the roles, including Lady Macbeth during a seductive turn in a bath tub.

Though some trims have been made, the hour-and-forty-five minute show is a remarkable -- and remarkably restrained -- display of memory and consideration.

The vocal changes among characters as wide ranging as Mac and Lady M, Banquo (represented by an apple in Cumming’s hand) and the weird sisters are minimal. (Each one gets her own TV screen.)

Dowager Queen

Only with Malcolm do things get show-offish, the regal king here played more as a dowager queen. What’s ill-considered as characterization is quite entertaining as performance.

Similarly, the scene in which Lady Macbeth urges her still- timid husband to dispatch Malcolm is played as a bedroom seduction, which requires some appealing versatility on Cumming’s part and is amusingly sexy.

But like the enterprise as a whole, it tells us more about Cumming than Shakespeare’s savage portrait of power lust.

Gratifying as it is to hear the language of “Macbeth” spoken with a proper burr, any subtlety and many words are lost beyond the front rows of the orchestra in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. It was instructional to see the show from the second row of the balcony, where patrons (myself included) had a hard time seeing, let alone hearing.

Rating: **1/2


The Festival has also imported the Druid Theatre Company in a triptych of plays by Tom Murphy. The experience over a nine- hour marathon is the opposite of “Macbeth”: Three plays of varying quality are given brilliant productions.

Druid is a company of actors working at an astonishingly high level under the direction of Garry Hynes, a theater genius whose work is better known here than the playwright she is presenting.

The best of the three, “A Whistle in the Dark,” is set in the 1960s. Michael, who escaped his brutish father and goony older brothers in Ireland, has married an English girl. Now they must cope with a family visit to their cramped quarters in Coventry, England.

Inevitable Explosion

Michael’s determination to retrieve his younger brother from the clannish violence that fuels the family is as futile as his impotence in protecting his wife. Bullied by the hopelessness of it all, Michael inevitably explodes.

A better play than John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” “Whistle” makes a stronger case for Murphy than the other two plays, “Conversations on a Homecoming,” set in the 1970s, or “Famine,” a grim, if earnest slog through the 1840s and the Irish Potato Famine.

What binds them together is the imaginative grace with which Hynes allows each show to transcend place, and a company of stars led by Niall Buggy, many playing multiple roles in all three plays. Rating: ***

“Macbeth” and “Druid/Murphy” are being performed through the end of the week. Information: +1-212-875-5766;

Rebecca Luker

The cabaret void left by the shuttering of the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel has been partly filled by the new 54 Below. The space, all reds, golds and leather, looks more like a set than an actual club. But it’s inviting enough and the Broadway crowd has embraced it.

Last week, Rebecca Luker, a golden-voiced soprano, offered a tribute to Jerome Kern that was as perfect a show as one could ask for.

It was filled with unknown gems such as “My Husband’s First Wife,” written with Irene Franklin, as well as gorgeously delivered standards from “Show Boat” and other musicals, including “Bill” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”

The menu is well-priced and the food is quite good. The service, however, needs another tech rehearsal.

The lineup at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St., changes week to week. Information: Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include James S. Russell on architecture and Greg Evans on television.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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