Henry the Turd

In one senseless scene from The Lion in Winter, actress Susan Clark as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine plants her body on-stage like a lead stump and bellows to the audience, "We have done a big thing badly." She's referring to her hellish relationship with husband King Henry II, but her statement quite astutely sums up the Parker Playhouse's production in which she stars.

Rarely have I seen a respected professional theater present work so uniformly awful in direction, set, costumes, and most of all, acting and writing. As King Henry, George Peppard - made wealthy and famous by his TV roles (The A-Team, Banacek) and film appearances, despite the fact that he cannot act - must duke it out with writer James Goldman for the worst contribution of the year to the theatrical world.

Not satisfied with having won acclaim for his 1968 film version of the Sixties play (featuring masterful performances by Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole), Goldman recently decided to reintroduce this comedy for the stage. Don't ask me why. The tale of plotting, imprisonment, incest, homosexuality, and war among British royals in the Twelfth Century never impressed me as much fodder for frolic. To make matters worse, the lines that are supposed to be funny fall flat, thanks to poor writing and even worse delivery. Maybe a laugh track would have helped clue me in.

However, broadly condemning Peppard, Goldman, and Clark (of television's Webster) as typical Hollywood product swiftly obliterated by the rigorous demands of stage work, affords them too much credit and an easy excuse. Plus it's simply not an accurate generalization. Plenty of stage actors with excellent skills have made the move to celluloid simply because they wanted to make some real money. Patrick Stewart, Swoosie Kurtz, and Patti LuPone consistently perform with taste and talent both on-stage and on the small screen. Even Cher's and Farrah Fawcett's theatrical outings almost rose to the challenge. But, identical to the lead character in playwright Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet (which, coincidentally, just closed at the Coconut Grove Playhouse), Peppard epitomizes the TV actor incapable of producing an honest microsecond in the absence of retakes and scenes that run longer than a few minutes.

I refuse to bore you - the way Goldman so ably does - with this muddled tale, except to say it's about King Henry, Queen Eleanor, and their three sons. Everyone bickers and bitches, when they're not lusting after unsuitable mates, and the boys literally drop their drawers for a crack at the crown. Lengthy, didactic monologues offer up information about British and French history, characters call themselves "primitive" because they live in 1183 (how did they come to this revelation - by experiencing premonitions of 1992?), and nothing real, exciting, or amusing transpires.

Much of the dialogue deserves imprisonment in the Tower of London. Talking about her pearls, Eleanor says she'd "hang them from my nipples, but I'd shock the children." Prince John calls his father a "turd," later stamping his feet and whining, "You don't love me!" And in a remarkably veracious line, Eleanor accuses oldest son Richard of "forever sounding one note."

Director Malcolm Black brought back to mind high school stage movement; everyone has an assigned spot, where they seem to take root and stagnate. If they're not talking, they're wood. Or worse, they move robotically to another designated area with absolutely no sense of purpose.

Apparently Black forgot to tell the actors that for theater, you need energy. Peppard, who also produced the play, mumbles in monotone, Clark sticks like glue to a painfully bad Katie Hepburn imitation, and the rest of the clan - with the exception of Eric Swanson as middle son Geoffrey - fail to connect with either the script or each other, speaking at one another in bizarre rhythmic patterns. Swanson alone knows how to act, but perhaps in a vain attempt to breathe life into these funereal proceedings, camps Geoffrey up a bit too broadly. And, looking as fake and cheesy as 1960s television scenery, both David Jenkins's set and Ann Roth's costumes add neither flavor, warmth, nor saving graces to the piece.

I could go on, but the English have a saying: Don't flog a dead horse. My whipping arm grows tired. Just stay away from this one unless your life depends on it.

Written by James Goldman, directed by Malcolm Black; with George Peppard, Susan Clark, Orlagh Cassidy, Tim Dekay, Daryll Heysham, Jeff Nichols, and Eric Swanson. At the Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St, Ft Lauderdale, through April 26. Performances Tuesday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $29.50 to $33.00. Call 764-0700 for more information.


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