THE LION IN WINTER by James Goldman, directed by Gregg Taylor. Presented by Scaramouche at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields (103 Bellevue). To March 11. $20 suggested. See Continuing for details. 416-538-1772. Rating: NN Rating: NN
The Lion In Winter is an acid-tipped drawing-room comedy set in a drafty French castle during the 12th century. There's more than a bit of soap opera theatrics - that's a good thing - but the stakes, politically and emotionally, are higher than you'll usually find on TV.
That's because the central figures are Henry II, ruler of England and half of France, and his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, imprisoned for a decade by her husband but released for a family Christmas.
And what a family it is. Joining the battling couple are their three wrangling sons, all of whom want power, a French princess who's Henry's young lover, and her brother, the King of France.
Plots and counterplots whiz by so fast that you can never be sure who's truthful and who's simply relishing how much they can toy with their opponents.
Too bad the Scaramouche presentation captures little of the play's cattiness and shifting loyalties. The physical setting in St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Church - bare brick, arches and imposing organ pipes - sets up a nicely medieval feel, but even allowing for a distractingly noisy evening (sounds of sirens and a rock band kept filtering in), the production pats when it should slap, gnaws languidly when it should bite sharply. With little tension among family members under Gregg Taylor 's static direction, the show's bitchiness rarely scratches more than skin deep.
Some cast members, thankfully, create characters with an intriguing sense of layers. Michael MacDonald 's Geoffrey, the one son we don't often hear of (Richard Lionheart and John are well known from tales of Robin Hood and elsewhere), keeps his bitterness in check much of the time as he plays lackey to his siblings, but it's clear this manipulative weasel loves to watch others tear pieces off each other.
Todd Dulmage brings a proper coolness to the boyish King of France, who's not so inexperienced at political chess as he first suggests, and Jonathan Llyr has the commanding voice for Henry but rarely suggests the ruler's necessary charisma.
Ruling this medieval roost is Maya Toman 's authoritative Eleanor, an aristocrat who hides her hurt beneath clever words, pulling everyone's strings with smiling, velvet sureness yet turning fiery or steely when necessary. Her long scene in the second act with Llyr proves there's still a grudging affection between this couple, who thrive on sparring, as Eleanor says, "tusk to tusk."