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A CurtainUp Review
Cyrano de Bergerac
By Elyse Sommer
Cyrano de Bergerac has been riding a wave of surprising popularity since its Paris premiere a hundred years ago. Why surprising? Edmond Rostand's story of a poet, soldier and philosopher with a heart to match the nose that prevents him from declaring his love for his beautiful cousin, is the very acme of romance. Its combination of sword-wielding swagger, its radiant verse and single moment of passion to compensate for a passionless life flew directly in the face of the naturalistic dramatic style that had come into vogue.
The public (and critical) response to Cyrano made it clear that the appetite for romance --especially the extravagantly bombastic romance of gallantry and undying devotion -- was far from sated. And neither is it today. Case in point: The swashbuckling Scarlet Pimpernel, despite an underwhelming critical reception, is doing okay at the box office, I suspect, because it feeds into the hunger for vicarious romance in a world steeped in realism. Case in point 2: As anyone in the book business can tell you, romance novels have been keeping many publishers financially afloat for years and the dirty little secret is that romance books number amongst their regular fans business executives and college professors.
In less than a year of its original productions Cyrano blossomed everywhere, including the United States. In addition to its English language versions it had a highly successful New York run in French, starring Sarah Bernhardt and the well-known French actor Coquelin.
For actors the role of Cyrano is probably coveted as much as that of Hamlet and the many productions throughout the world (including three movies--one an update by Steve Martin) have made the funny-sad story of the long-nosed romantic familiar to more audiences than many another classic .
Still, it's been years since we've had a major New York Cyrano --unless you count the clumsy Dutch musical that had an understandably short run during the 1993 season. That brings us to the just opened revival at the Roundabout's Laura Pels theater. Can Rostand's often extravagantly witty verse and a well known actor like Frank Langella make this old swashbuckler resonate with new audiences as well as those theater goers who'll see any major actor's interpretation of a classic role?
Langella certainly has the voice and hamm-y gusto to deliver the metaphors in which Rostand's script abounds. Unfortunately his reductive version of the play is a fast-food equivalent of a gourmet meal. The words are all there. Brian Hooker translation, despite a lifespan that far exceeds the twenty years recommended by James Magruder and Estelle Gilson is serviceable (SeeMagruder interview and Gilson translation article), especially Cyrano's amusing self-deprecation of "this the nose that launched a thousand ships . . . my protuberance that precedes me by a quarter of an hour"" and some of our hero's more memorable romantic declarations.
However, without the usual plumes and flowing hair and thickly peopled staging, the versified eloquence and bon mots are so many Zircons in a cheaply set ring. With the exception of the lively act one dueling scene when Langella moves off the stage and the production almost gets away with creating the sense of the audience as the missing crowd, this enterprise leaves one emotionally unengaged and wondering whether this might not be a hit that has finally lost its romantic glow.
While Mr. Langella is to be commended for trying to give Cyrano a fresh new look, his lean-cuisine approach makes more economic than theatrical sense. It is a classic example of an actor emulating the defendant who insists on being his own lawyer. In an interview in the Roundabout's newsletter Langella, upon being asked about being adaptor and director as well as star conceded that "my hubris knows no bounds." Would that he had restrained that hubris enough to at minimum hire a co-director. Such a colleague might have persuaded him to slow down the super-highway pace of his line delivery and either assembled a cast to match his talent or wrested more dynamic performances from this ensemble. Another director might also have given him a more mature Roxanne so that his being sixty to her twenty-something would not give the romance an unnecessary May-December twist (not to mention an inaccurate one since it demands a big stretch to overlook the impossibility of having this Cyrano and this Roxanne reminisce about their shared youths.
Looking at Mr. Langella's stated goals in the above and several other interviews, it also takes a more expert director to make modern audiences connect with Cyrano's nobility instead of just his nose problem which today's cosmetic surgeons could easily deal with. As for the character of Lise who the actor-director-adaptor sees as physical evidence that Cyrano would not be repellent to all women -- nothing in his direction manages to show even a hint of this subtext (possibly because it doesn't fit the play).
Given the chamber-sized ensemble structure of the play, the ever versatile James Noone has created a set that, seemingly without effort transforms itself from theater, to bakery, to balcony , to battlefield. Carrie Robbins costumes support the subtle coloration of the sets but, like this whole bare-bones effort, do little to locate the character's in a specific time and place.