King Lear famously describes how having an ungrateful child is sharper than a serpent's tooth, and the enraged monarch often holds forth on the crucifying agony that attends the frail, pathetic, rejected parent. But here's something we hear less of in Shakespeare: What does the child feel who turns his or her back on the father—or who, like Regan, mutilates the body of an aged patriarch (not technically her sire)? It might be hell to stumble across a blasted heath pummelled by rain and lightning, but isn't it also awful to be unable to feel for those you should love most? In Lear, Young Jean Lee's self-described "inaccurate distortion" of the classic, she banishes the title monarch and Gloucester to the wings and focuses on the younger generation: Goneril (Okpokwasili), Regan (Matthis), Cordelia (Workman), Edgar (Lazar) and Edmund (Simpson). The absurdist, meta-Shakespearean results are by turns irreverent, grotesque and morally harrowing. The writer-director and her outstanding actors plumb the depths of a bona fide existential crisis: hating unto death those who gave you life.
Lee, whose profile has rocketed in the past six years, is a poet of transcendent self-loathing and spiritual yearning. In plays such as The Appeal, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and last year's The Shipment, she has refined a theatrical style marked by violent tonal shifts, racist provocation, scenes of banal naturalism decaying into infantile silliness, deliberately crude characterization and monologues in which Lee flays her psyche for our delectation. All these aesthetic strategies are present in the sumptuously designed and cunningly acted Lear, but there's more: Just when I thought Lee couldn't get more personal, she digs deeper to find a subject that makes us even more uncomfortable.
I don't know much about the playwright's biography, but I suspect that she's probing a deep filial ambivalence that scares her. Or perhaps not. Honestly, it doesn't matter if the script is confessional; the author takes her cue from Shakespeare's bleakest work and runs with it, concocting bizarre scenes among the characters as they sit around, bored or nervous, in a Renaissance throne room (the gorgeous period set and costumes are by David Evans Morris and Roxana Ramseur, respectively).
Not surprisingly, these characters rub against the grain of the originals. Simpson's haunted, unexpectedly naive Edmund is conscience-stricken and oafish when wooing the ladies. Edgar, conversely, is a self-involved lout. Gone is the saintly, forgiving Cordelia; instead, Workman wears a smug, menacing smile and wraps Edmund around her pretty little finger. Goneril is so deranged by guilt that she temporarily becomes her father, roaring at her offspring from the throne. And unfathomably violent Regan is the real puzzle, inscrutable and recessed. "Oh I am so lonely in this mind," she sighs, in one of the play's more affecting lines.
About 20 minutes before the end, the structure breaks. Lee introduces found text from a pivotal episode of Sesame Street (explaining Mr. Hooper's death) and a long, anguished speech about an adult child's apathy toward a dying parent. Although we've come to expect such brutal clefts from Lee, it does feel like she has an excess of material (even for 80 minutes) and might have organized it better so it didn't feel so anticlimactic. Still, what metrics do we have for abstract dramaturgy? We lack a critical vocabulary to evaluate badly behaved plays; that is our collective cultural failure.
So the path of least resistance is to announce that you're confused and bored—or worse, unimpressed. Traditionalists, the folks who'd rather see a mediocre revival of a classic than the bracing premiere of a weird play, will label Lear an act of cultural vandalism that only reveals the author's puny talent compared with the Bard. But Lee is one of the most vital, rewarding playwrights to arrive on the scene in the past decade. She has a flair for seductive, elliptical self-exposure that reminds you of Wallace Shawn, and her language has an intensity and slipperiness that commands attention. She directs with gusto and collaborates with some of the best downtown actors and designers (including Matt Tierney, with his wall-rumbling sound effects).
But after all the reviews have been forgotten and/or archived, will anyone want to revisit this messy, disorienting, obsessive text? At the end of the day, Lear may not be as sleek and stunning as The Shipment, but it has power and ought to endure. If defenders of conventional dramaturgy win the day, the 2110--2111 season will include major revivals of Dinner with Friends and Rabbit Hole. That's what we leave our children. Don't expect them to thank us.
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. Written and directed by Young Jean Lee. With Paul Lazar, April Matthis, Okwui Okpokwasili, Pete Simpson, Amelia Workman. 1hr 20mins. No intermission.