Lithgow Dazzles in National Theatre Live’s “The Magistrate”

NTLive's "The Magistrate" opening screen shot at The Angelika

NTLive’s “The Magistrate” opening screening shot at The Angelika

Guest review by Jason Kane: Urban legend holds that a famous actor’s last words were “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Did anyone attending those sage last words respond with “Have you tried farce?” While comedy can succeed in a fluid, malleable presentation, the slightest error in timing can ruin good farce. That distinction makes watching American John Lithgow and his distinguished British compatriots in NTLive’s broadcast of “The Magistrate” an acting lesson of rare proportion. Precision is the key to farce, and director Timothy Sheader has conducted his orchestra of players with a deft baton of brilliance.

Written in 1885 by British playwright Arthur Wing Pinero, “The Magistrate” is a broad comedy about social class and the weakness of vanity. Although still accessible to a modern audience, it is—like the rest of Pinero’s works—rarely produced. The National Theatre’s production is visually stunning, with a popup-book set design and a harlequin-like Greek chorus book-ending each scene.

Agatha (played by Olivier Award-winner Nancy Carroll) shaves five years off her age when she meets and marries the titular magistrate, Mr. Poskett (Lithgow). She compounds her lie when she introduces Poskett to her son, Cis, turning her young man of 19 into a 14-year old boy. When her pretense starts to unravel, everyone falls prey to a web of white lies and deception.

Joshua McGuire infuses the character Cis with impish glee, more than willing to believe his presumptive youthfulness arises from his age rather than slothful ignorance. His infectious energy charms both piano teacher and housemaid into matching his lustful desires. But Lithgow sets the comedic bar, performing a second act soliloquy that rivals the best of Chaplin and Keaton (now with words!).

“The Magistrate” is part of a live screening series produced by London’s National Theatre, bringing broadcasts of the company’s signature stage productions to movie theatres around the world. Originally broadcast on January 17th, an air of immediacy invigorates the full evening at the theatre: from the pre-show introduction and brief interview with the director to the street sounds that accompany the “live shot” of The National’s exterior during the 15-minute intermission (this is London, darling, so call it by its proper name, “the interval”).

A behind-the-scenes featurette leads the audience through the production’s journey to opening night. Just one of the experience’s insightful strokes of genius, it’s hard to imagine a better way to make live theatre more engaging to a modern, tech-obsessed audience than to offer “special features” (not to mention the encouraged feedback via Facebook or Twitter). Next NTLive Angelika screenings feature Alan Bennett’s new play, “People” (starring Harry Potter’s giantess, Frances de la Tour), followed by James Graham’s biting, political drama “This House”. Kudos to The Angelika for bringing this series to Dallas; connecting American audiences to the best of British theatre helps demonstrate arts’ importance to cultural diversity and expression.

“The Magistrate” shows once more at Dallas’ Angelika at Mockingbird Station: Saturday, February 2nd at 2:00pm. For more information: http://tinyurl.com/b82btpl.

Regional actor and director Jason Kane has performed around the metroplex at Uptown Players, WaterTower Theater, Dallas Children’s Theater, Theatre Three and The Undermain. He has acted, sung and directed in five states and toured the country with Theatreworks/USA. Kane received his BFA in Acting/Directing from SMU. This is his first guest review for criticalrant.com.

Review to post in content partner TheaterJones.com

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