01/17/2014 11:26 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

First Nighter: Frank Langella Fights the King Lear Storm and Conquers

Frank Langella is doing a completely respectable King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey in William Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name. But wait. Better be more specific, since in discussing the daunting role, the actor is on record as saying he makes a very deliberate point of never giving the same performance twice.

Probably no one working on stage does precisely the same thing night after night after matinee after night, but apparently Langella is adamant about not repeating himself. So this review covers only one quite specific outing and may have little or nothing in common with either the subsequent performances here or the performance(s) British critics saw when they carried on about Langella's Chichester Festival version(s) in the now transferred Angus Jackson production.

At the Sunday matinee I attended -- the one described above as "completely respectable" -- Langella was much more than that in the opening sequence when Lear, looking to divide his realm among daughters Goneril (Catherine McCormack), Regan (Lauren O'Neil) and Cordelia (Isabella Laughland), proves he's "a foolish, fond old man," by falling for the insincere tributes the older siblings offer and repudiating the tersely honest response the youngest makes.

Using his voice in a gravelly range unfamiliar from past portrayals and a stooped yet regal posture, the lavishly robed Langella suggests a monarch used to spitting fire if that's what's necessary to achieve his desires. He dominates the scene, as he should. How has he played it at his many other innings? Can't say here, but a good guess is he's executed it just as successfully, if mildly or wildly differently.

The same guess goes for his final scene, which is, as Lear's heart breaks at the death of Cordelia, heart-breaking for observers as well. Lear proponents know that Shakespeare gives the humbled king the words "howl" and "never" to repeat. At the Sunday matinee, Langella took his time, uttering the two series of words as if they were traveling painfully up from his gut. His handling of these acting challenges is as effective as I've ever seen.

In between his commanding start and devastating finish, he slickly covers the encounters with those venal daughters at their chilly estates and with Gloucester (Denis Conway) and good but estranged son Edgar (Sebastian Armesto) on the heath. He gives worthy readings of his "O reason not the need" and "Blow winds, crack your cheeks" speeches. But if he's changing from one showing to the next, my suspicion is that, whereas he couldn't improve on the segments mentioned above, he might be even better during the in-between parts at other performances.

What about those supporting him? The best is Max Bennett as Gloucester's conniving illegitimate son Edmund. Aware that it's not necessary to declaim dialogue in order to establish skullduggery, Bennett beautifully underplays his "Thou, Nature, art my goddess" soliloquy. No, make that, he renders the menacing credo with utmost subtlety. Thereafter, he makes a point of insinuating himself into all his scenes with the same nuanced approach.

McCormack's Goneril, O'Neil's Regan and Laughland's Cordelia are an unusual trio. Normally, Goneril and Regan are sinister -- "sharper than a serpent's tooth," as the begrudged Lear phrases it. Cordelia is the self-effacing one, demure, reticent. Not here. Here, it's Laughland's Cordelia who shows the most determination during Lear's division of the kingdom. McCormack's Goneril and O'Neil's Regan play the obedient children when initially called on to speak and then, when their true colors are meant to be revealed, remain surprisingly docile.

Odd, but maybe justifiable. Maybe not, since Goneril's goading of hubby Albany isn't convincing. The drawback is that, as the sympathetic Albany, Chu Omambala is a riveting figure of a man. Goneril's mocking his manhood seems all but deranged. O'Neil's Regan has an easier time of it, since she has a more balanced partner in Tim Treloar's eye-popping (literally, since he's the one dealing with Gloucester's cruel punishment) Cornwall.

Among the others, Conway is an avuncular Gloucester, Steven Pacey a stalwart Kent and Tom Mothersdale a rightly annoying Oswald. Lear's Fool--who gets to spout many of Shakespeare's funniest and, more to the point, wisest lines about true wisdom--is young Harry Melling. He's a bit of all right, as might be expected since he honed his craft playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies.

The production has one of those sets, this one by Robert Innes Hopkins, meant to represent everywhere and nowhere. At the back is a series of tall and spattered square columns titling this way and that. Not a bad way to designate a crumbling monarchy. The floor is marked by jagged levels that also promote the endless perils depicted in the play. Hopkins also is the costumer and did well with the proper period look. Lighting designer Peter Mumford and sound designer Fergus O'Hare rose to the storm-on-the-heath requirements.

In sum: This King Lear was in commendable hands the afternoon I saw it. When you get there, you're on your own -- although it needs to be added that the chance to see an actor of Langella's long-proven high caliber going for dramatic gold is something to grab for.