|artist: Paul Davis
|A Young American Dons Richard II's Crown
by J. Benzel, The New York Times, June 28, 1987
|The sun beat down on the bowl of the Delacorte theater in Central Park, where the actors and crew of
"Richard II" were rehearsing. Joseph Papp, slathered in sunblock, issued stage directions and vocally
supplied the drum rolls and trumpet sounds that punctuate the scenes. The set was merely a skeleton of
wooden beams, the actors sported Panama hats, sunglasses and scabbards strapped on over their
shorts. Peter MacNicol, a slight but commanding King Richard, moved with the assurance of royalty
through the makeshift 14th-century pomp.
Mr. Papp called a lunch break, and the kingly posture dropped away. Peter MacNicol became himself -- a
gentle but driven 33-year-old actor, from Dallas by way of Minnesota, who has rarely lacked for work on
the stage since he arrived in New York seven years ago.
Mr. MacNicol is the first major American actor to play Richard, according to Mr. Papp, the producer of the
New York Shakespeare Festival and the director of "Richard II," which is currently in previews and opens
officially on Thursday. "John Gielgud put a stamp on this role in his time -- he was a younger am -- and
Maurice Evans," said Mr. Papp. "I saw Jeremy Irons play it in London just a few weeks ago. But these are
English actors, all part of the Gielgud tradition, kind of sorrowful, Christlike portrayal, which I think, with
all due respect to these fine actors, robs the play. Richard is a rapscallion who gets stronger the more
the pressure comes upon him. I think an American actor can bring something fresh to the play."
Mr. MacNicol, said Mr. Papp, "has an extraordinary emotional capacity I've seen in few actors. I've never
seen him do something false. He may make the wrong choice in an acting thing, and he sometimes takes
enormous risks, but it's always truthful. It always comes from his insides."
Mr. Papp will direct Mr. MacNicol again this summer, in "Henry IV, Part I," which begins performances Aug.
21. The play replaces "Titus Andronicus," which was to have been directed by Charles Ludlam, who died
Mr. MacNicol has grown a beard to play the poet king. Behind it, the open, achingly expressive face is
most recognizable as Stingo, the post-adolescent, Southern narrator of the film "Sophie's Choice." When
Mr. MacNicol speaks, his intonations change with the part he is discussing: the gawky, gallant lawyer
Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart"; the despised defense attorney in Emily Mann's "Execution of
Justice"; Jake Seward, the naive spy of Keith Reddin's "Rum and Coke"; Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whom he
played in last year's Shakespeare in the Park production of "Twelfth Night," and Richard II, the reluctant
young king whose throne in usurped by his childhood companion.
Mr. MacNicol, who said he had not seen the play performed on stage, seemed puzzled by the suggestion
that Richard II is a difficult role. "It's written entirely in verse, " he mused, "but I don't think that keeps
the audience at arm's length one little bit. It's a play without a lot of onstage action, but -- and I'm not
just trying to be glib here -- it has tremendous action of ideas."
The play's central conflict is a psychological battle between King Richard and his archrival, the Earl of
Bolingbroke, played in this production by John Bedford Lloyd. Mr. Papp faults British productions of
"Richard II" for playing it too seriously. His own images of Bolingbroke and Richard are of King Kong (Mr.
Lloyd is a big, bearlike actor) and Fay Wray. "Bolingbroke," he said, "is awed by Richard, intimidated by
him. He just doesn't know what to do with him, holding him in his hand there, he doesn't know whether
to kiss him or crush him.
"There's also a lot of comedy in this play that's not generally played as comedy," said Mr. Papp. "The
British don't play it that way. They play it very solemnly. Peter can do both, he's very good at comedy. In
'Henry IV,' he'll have to play both comedy and seriousness. He'll have to deal with Falstaff, so he has to
be a fast-talking, sharp kind of man. Peter can do that. He's highly educated in the art of acting."
Mr. MacNicol's formal education as an actor came at the University of Minnesota and at the Guthrie
Theater in Minneapolis, where he was a member of the repertory company for two years.
Kevin Kline, who starred with Meryl Streep and Mr. MacNicol in "Sophie's Choice" (and who last summer
played Richard III at the Delacorte), describes Mr. MacNicol as having "compassion, warmth and great
wit. His comedy is very human, and the fearlessness he uses in his comedy work helps to make him
suited to Shakespeare."
"By inclination, I'm a comedian," acknowledged Mr. MacNicol. Indeed, he provided much of the comic relief
in "Sophie's Choice," particularly Stingo's encounter with the young siren Leslie Lapidus, from which he
emerged frustrated and incredulous, face smeared with the wounds of passion. "Now I've become this
brooding thing. Aguecheek, give me Aguecheek," he said, alluding to the comic knight he played in last
summer's production of "Twelfth Night."
Richard, in contrast, "stands tallest when he has been laid lowest. He's not a good king, he was born to
be a martyr. Most of us feel most alive when life is bestowing the very best of what is has -- success in
business and success in love. It takes these sorts of crests to feel anything like euphoria, but Richard,
strangely, flourishes in the troughs. One senses at times a boredom with the affairs of state. As he is
demolished, he becomes empowered and ennobled by the tragedy of the circumstances. As a king, he's
just another king. As a martyr, he's exceptional.
"Of course," Mr. MacNicol added, "we all feel close to Richard because we've all been deposed at various
times in our lives. He's the most human of Shakespeare's characters that I've encountered, because he's
rash, he's witty, he vacillates between magnificent courage and the most craven cowardice, he cherished
his fineries, then in this moment of bleakness he's willing to give away his last thread. That range makes
him so completely, recognizably human."
Although work onstage and critical acclaim have come steadily to Mr. MacNicol, acting has often been so
painful for him that he has run away -- from New York and from acting -- questioning whether to continue
with it at all. He attributes part of that pain to the competitiveness of show business, but, he said, the
roles themselves can also have a destructive effect.
Actors, he explained, "can be wonderful in a play, but they've got to go out and be wonderful again.
Excellence can be obsessive. On any given night you're tracking your performance, and if you're like me --
which is to say type triple A -- I'm the least merciful of all critics. And that sets up a tension that doesn't
go away. You go home to someone who simply wants you to be you" -- Mr. MacNiicol was married last
year to Marsue Cumming, a film producer -- "and you pretend that you're there, like those townspeople
in ''Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' but there's always something under the surface, namely last night's
performance. It's a cruel and dominating state of mind.
"There's no fire suit you can wear," he continued. "Acting does pose dangers to people. You really, like
Persephone, go down to hell for that flower -- it's dangerous. I don't know how to do it without
undergoing some identification with that character, and it goes far beyond some physical approximation."
He described how, when he worked with Mr. Kline and Ms. Streep in "Sophie's Choice," his role spilled
over into his life: Like the three characters in the movie, "we did become great, great friends." On the
day of the scene "where I find them laying dead across the mattress," after Sophie and Nathan have
killed themselves, Mr. MacNicol recalled that the extras, playing the police officer on the scene, "were sort
of lolling about, smoking cigars, not into the spirit at all, nor trying to be, and I had a rage that completely
caught me unawares. Stingo, under these circumstances, would have felt much the same thing: These
uncaring homicide cops -- just another day for them. But the sense of loss was nothing I had to mimic."
He snapped out of recounting the memory. "All this sounds so phony when actors are talking about this
sort of thing. When I read articles about actors who are saying about how the character took over I just
want to slap them and say, 'O.K., take a shower, have some strong black coffee. You are not that
character, you are you.'
"But," he added thoughtfully, "if you're doing it right, you're in store for some bruises."
Mr. MacNicol has made only one movie since the 1982 "Sophie's Choice": "Heat," with Burt Reynolds,
which came and went with the early spring. He said he is not particularly interested in working on film,
but that when movie parts come, the financial freedom they bring is welcome.
His favorite roles are those in which he plays a friend, an "enabler," as he put it, chalking up his
preference to what he called an American desire to be liked. But with his role in "Execution of Justice" and
that of the cynical Jack Burden in a recent production of "all the King's Men" Providence, R.I. -- both
unlikable sorts -- and with Richard, he "just really took the plunge and said 'Aw, to hell with the smiles of
people to hell with the nod and the grin.' I don't care. All I care about is being good."