11/22/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Ethan Hawke and Amanda Peet Take on the Stage

Jack O'Brien, in his enchanting and highly recommended memoir Jack Be Nimble, enlightens us on the career of a modern-day regional theatre director. Independent directors pick and chose their plays, usually with a future project or two on deck. The regionally-trained director seems to work off a never-ending slate, with always another slot to fill. O'Brien relinquished the Artistic Director slot he long held at the Old Globe in San Diego back in 2007, but nevertheless seems to still be on a playground roundabout -- direct a show here, jump on the platform, spin around, and jump off at the next stop for the next play on the schedule. This allows him to come up with remarkable theatre along the way, but not every time.

A favored spot for O'Brien is the Lincoln Center Theater, where he has shepherded the sterling Stoppard trilogy The Coast of Utopia, as well as last season's The Nance. Eleven plays, all told, since 1992. (His numerous other projects over the same period have included the musicals Hairspray, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.) O'Brien is unquestionably one of our finest directors. Sometimes, though, the plans you put in motion and fit into the schedule don't ultimately work out.

O'brien and Hawke's Macbeth

Movie star Ethan Hawke clearly feels at home at Lincoln Center; he has starred there, for O'Brien, in Henry IV and the three Coast of Utopia plays. The actor and the director decided they wanted to do Macbeth, and the Lincoln Center was naturally glad to put it on the schedule. As the calendar turned out, this is a top-heavy time for the Thane of Cawdor; last season ended with Alan Cumming playing a decidedly odd Macbeth at the Barrymore, and in June, New York will see Kenneth Branagh's highly acclaimed production from the Manchester International Festival.

The competition, though, won't hurt Hawke's Macbeth. Neither will the presence of Mark Rylance's Twelfth Night and Richard III, which got the best Shakespeare-on-Broadway reviews in a generation when they opened ten days ago. For this is a weak Macbeth, on a level with Kelsey Grammer's ill-advised stab at the play in 2000.

O'Brien, in a program insert, explains that this time around he has decided to concentrate on the imagery of the play. This is, naturally enough, not his first take on the play; he did a production in 1971 with the Macbeths played by Richard Easton and the late Sada Thompson. Easton is in the present company as well, playing Duncan. The images that O'Brien has contrived with set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Japhy Weideman are altogether stunning; some of them look like they come from a sketchbook of Robert Edmond Jones, which is a high compliment indeed.

But the production gets off to a mighty weird start with three mighty weird witches -- here played by Byron Jennings, Malcolm Gets, and John Glover (who sports a full set of breasts, by the way). This is a nightmarish vision of Macbeth, and there's nothing wrong with giving us a nightmarish vision of Macbeth -- if it works. If it doesn't though, there's no recovery. Mr. Hawke -- who was really very good as Bakunin in the Utopia plays, here seems to be speaking a different language than the others. His acting also earned some guffaws at the press performance, and not without reason. His lady, British actress Anne-Marie Duff, is in another play altogether; it's hard to judge her performance, as it doesn't fit with the rest.

Standing out among the cast are Brian d'Arcy James as Banquo, Daniel Sunjata as MacDuff, and Jonny Orsini (who made a stunning debut in O'Brien's The Nance) as Malcolm. The late-in-the-action scene between MacDuff and Malcolm is exceedingly well played and well directed; we suddenly feel like we're watching a real production of the play, and an altogether excellent one. For the moment anyway. Mr. Jennings and Mr. Glover manage to keep themselves watchable, but in a ghoulish sort of way.

Let us also report that although Hawke -- after an hour or so -- repeatedly admonished the customers to "sleep no more," more than a handful did just that.

The Commons of Pensacola

Did you see the one about the financial mastermind who perpetrated a heinous swindle of billions of dollars from friends and acquaintances and widows, leaving his wife and children -- once he was sent to the hoosegow for life -- left to cope with former friends pointing accusatory fingers while an army of investigators sniff around for secreted-away cash? Oh, you have seen something of the sort? Little enlightenment, then, can be expected from Amanda Peet's The Commons of Pensacola at City Center Stage 1. Woody Allen did it better.

In this case, Sarah Jessica Parker is the daughter at the play's center, her life, career and finances destroyed by Daddy's devastating deed. The ex-wife is Blythe Danner, whom we still remember walking around in her underwear (and winning a 1970 Tony Award) as the free-spirited heroine of Butterflies Are Free, but who is now saddled with a passel of fart jokes.

Late in the action, Parker's character has a bravura speech and it all becomes clear. Ms. Peet, who is principally an actress, seems to have written the role for herself and built the play to peak with this juicy speech. The action takes place at a waterfront condo in Florida during Thanksgiving week, and turkey is in order.