Theater review by Diane Snyder. Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex (see Off Broadway). By Robert Brustein. Dir. Austin Pendleton. With ensemble cast. 1hr 20mins. No intermission.
That business in Shakespeare’s will about bequeathing his wife his “second best bed” has sparked nearly as much scholarly discussion as some of the Bard’s minor plays. The Last Will, theater cognoscente Robert Brustein’s fictional saga of the final days of the world’s greatest playwright, is a clever construct that imagines where life and art might have merged, but this Abingdon Theatre production, directed by the usually dependable Austin Pendleton (who also stars as the retired writer), unfolds with soap-opera heavy-handedness.
One could call it As the Globe Turns, except it’s not set in Shakespeare’s playhouse but in his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he has shrunk to a frail, haggard, syphilis-ridden creature who can’t separate real life from stage life and often confuses people and scenarios with ones from his plays: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear. He believes wife Anne (Stephanie Roth Haberle) is having an affair—and a handkerchief becomes “evidence”; questions whether younger daughter Judith (Christianna Nelson) is actually his; but worships deceptive older daughter Susanna (Merritt Janson), to whom he bequeaths the bulk of his estate, unaware that she’s enjoying the best-bed comforts of his lawyer (David Wohl).
Wretched yet prone to pithy, strident outbursts, Pendleton’s Shakespeare isn’t an enduring enough force to carry the play; he’s overtaken by Jeremiah Kissel’s jaunty turn as actor Richard Burbage. As the final installment of a trilogy of Brustein plays about Shakespeare, The Last Will may be most appreciated by history buffs and Shakespeare romantics. Almost 400 years after his death, he remains such stuff as dreams are made on.—Diane Snyder
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