Cyrano de Bergerac

The Roundabout is offering us some very large scale productions this season, and Cyrano de Bergerac at the American Airlines Theatre is certainly one of them. Edmond Rostand wrote it in 1897 and  it was inspired by the adventures of the real “Cyrano” who romped around France in the mid seventeenth century during the reigns of Louis XIII and IX.  Rostand gave him a story of his own invention, but he populated it with some of the real Cyrano’s relatives and acquaintances.

“Roxanne” was based on his cousin, and he did, in fact, fight with the guards at Arras in 1640  where one of his fellow soldiers was Christian, who later married Roxanne.  But Rostand’s Cyrano is in love with Roxanne, and  it is that obsessive love that is the engine that drives his play.

Douglas Hodge and Clémence Poésy as Cyrano and Roxanne (Photo: Joan Marcus)

It drives it well, and it has always been a crowd pleaser.  It first showed up on Broadway for a brief run in 1898, the year it was first translated into English. Since then, it has been revived 15 times, often attracting stars like Jose Ferrer, Kevin Kline, Derek Jacobi,  Walter Hampden and Christopher Plummer. Ferrer’s production in 1946 enjoyed a run of 193 performances, something close to a record for a revival of a classic. The most prominent translators have been Anthony Burgess and Brian Hooker.

I saw the Ferrer version as a young man, and was enthralled by it.  The play has elements of operetta, melodrama, verse drama, low comedy, lavish scenery and members of the Gascon Guard who always seem about to sing “Stout Hearted Men”. The plot is simple: Christian is handsome and boring, Cyrano is physically a mess but can mesmerize with his eloquent tongue and his command of language, Roxanne is a pretty simp who falls desperately in love with Christian at the mere sight of him across a theatre foyer. He in turn falls for her just as quickly.

The problem is she must test his wits and his wisdom, and he has none to offer. So Cyrano volunteers to help him out by writing his letters for him, and by speaking for him on dark nights, when Roxanne cannot see very clearly, but can hear what’s coming at her on her balcony as she flirts with her would be lover, while asking him to talk philosophy to her. A demanding wench, this.

In order for this to work, the acting style must be consistent, a combination of reality and larger than reality. Essential is the clear reading of the words, for the couplets rhyme and though they are hardly profound, they are romantic and they should lift us in to the realm of this highly romanticized tale.

There is sword play, a duel between Cyano and a member of the crowd who has insulted him, which is performed while Cyrano is composing a sonnet in verse, which he has promised to end as he polishes off his opponent. He keeps his promise.  All this is accompanied by his pals from the Guard, banging away on the tables and floor with their sticks, to show us how manly they are.

As I’ve said, there have been at least 15 productions of this play on Broadway in the last 100 years, and countless numbers of others in high schools, colleges, and acting schools throughout the world. I’ve only seen one, plus the musical version named simply Cyrano, in which Chris Plummer played the role in verse, and sang the score as well.  Lest you worry that this might be quite a load, even for a young star (the year was 1973), Mr. Plummer only had to appear for 49 performances at the Palace on Broadway. But at least he finally allowed the hearty Gascon to play the Palace.

This time out, the Roundabout has gone British on us, importing Jamie Lloyd to direct and Douglas Hodge to star, with Cleménce Poésy in support as Roxanne. Mr. Hodge dazzled us two seasons ago as Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles, and I so looked forward to his return as the soldier of fortune who has compensated for his large and noticeable nose by becoming an excellent swordsman, a popular poet, a rascal and a wit, sort of a rock star of his time.

Some productions just go wrong from the start, and I’m sorry to report that this is a shining example of one that did just that. Mr. Hodge is positively manic in the role, and one has the impression he has a train to catch as words keep tripping off his tongue, and I do mean tripping.  His great achievement early on is to write and speak the rhyming couplets of his sonnet while he is defeating a dueling dandy who has offended him. Well, his lips kept moving as he thrusted and parried, but none of us understood more than one word in ten of the poem.

His very entrance from the rear of the theatre, his disappearance and return so that he could leap up on to the stage — all possible I suppose, for the opening scene is set in the entrance foyer to a theatre in which a major actor is about to appear, but from the start Mr. Hodge’s Cyrano seemed to have been shot from a cannon.

His fellow players got the message, and joined him in declaiming the play, robbing it of any sustained humor and/or pathos. The final scene is set 10 years later. Roxanne has lost her Christian at the battle with the Spaniards at Arras, and has retired to a nunnery, where an aging Cyrano, still in love with her, comes to visit each week and to share with her his news of the outside world. If you don’t know the ending, you won’t find it here — but I do warn you that Ms. Poésy, who claims still to be grieving over her lost lover, though dressed in black from head to toe, looked trim and fit and about as moving as a mature Shirley Temple might have been in the role.

Mr. Hodge on the other hand, expired handsomely, but not before he and his lady had come to some sort of closure.  Had this been a musical, I do believe the entire company would have then sung something bright and uplifting like “Tomorrow” or “Maytime” or at least hopeful, like  “I’ll See You Again”.

The sets and costumes are smashing. One actor — Patrick Page, late of The Green Hornet in Spiderman –has nailed the style, the accent, the beautiful speech, the ability to make a lavish costume look as natural and customary as a three-button suit.  As the Compte de Guiche, he gives us a glimpse of what might have been.

The rest of the very large company is consistent in following the directorial plan; they play to the front, constantly speechifying to us in the most old fashioned style imaginable.  In Mr. Hodge’s case, it was just a matter of choosing the wrong approach.  He’s already proven he’s a gifted, brave and charismatic actor and I think, like Katie Katie Finneran in Annie, he decided to give us this manic Cyrano, though it’s difficult to understand how a character who respects language so much could hurl it at us at such lightning speed and with such unvarying rhythm.

Never boring, this production, declaimed as it is most of the time, it is merely irritating.

The Roundabout’s batting average is high. I’ve just seen their The Mystery of Edwin Drood,  which opens November 13th, and already — all is forgiven.

Cyrano de Bergerac is onstage at the American Airlines Theatre,  227 West 42nd Street, New York, NYC
Details and tickets

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Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.  Read more at RichardSeff.com

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