Lithgow Survives a Train-wreck: THE MAGISTRATE

John Lithgow (Aeneas Posket) and Dandies. Photo by Johan Persson

John Lithgow (Aeneas Posket) and Dandies. Photo by Johan Persson

Simulcast at the Coolidge Corner Theatre
Presented by the National Theatre in London

by Arthur Wing Pinero
directed by Timothy Sheader
lyrics by Richard Stilgoe
music by Richard Sisson
choreography by Liam Steel

Brookline, MA
January 17th and February 3rd, 2013

Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Brookline) I defy you to dislike John Lithgow on stage or film. The veteran actor has had one of the most vibrant careers in film, staring in everything from the campy 80’s classic the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension to the bloody television show Dexter. While Lithgow has amazing acting chops, much of his allure is that he appears to thoroughly enjoy himself in every role, showing the same joy as a child might upon getting his first role in a school production. His joy for acting can sometimes get in the way of his more miserable roles, but it’s impossible not to enjoy watching; his character may be dying of Alzheimer’s in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but Lithgow still seems to be having the time of his life doing so.

It is Lithgow’s ability to have fun while acting that is the only fun thing worth watching in the Simulcast production of The Magistrate, beamed from the National Theatre in London. This unfunny comedy is a testament that a play can be terrible even though it’s English and based on an antique script. John Lithgow is Posket, the judge in question, an honest man who marries into a family that harbors one little secret that will upend their sense of decency. His wife, Agatha (Nancy Carroll), lied about her age when they first met, and her lie shaved five years off the age of her son from a previous marriage, as well. Everyone thinks the youth, Cis (Joshua McGuire), is a precocious 14-year old, including himself, but he actually is a normal and randy young adult. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as this secret is in danger of being revealed, but hilarity doesn’t.

The fault here likes equally with director Timothy Sheader, who decided to create a Pee Wee’s Playhouse feel to the production, and the source material, which doesn’t rise above the level of summer stock. Sheader tries to dress up the tired plot with a Timothy Burton sensibility to the costumes and set, but he only succeeds in making the characters more unlikable and the plot more tiresome. The cast gamely commits full-tilt to the director’s ethos, but it feels that they know the production is doomed, all except for Lithgow, who can’t stop having fun. The audience hangs on his every utterance.

Lithgow is such a prolific actor that I would skip this small footnote in his work. Another great performance of his is bound to come along in a month or two.

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