Review: No Battle of Wits in This Mild ‘Man for All Seasons’ | Modern Society of USA

Review: No Battle of Wits in This Mild ‘Man for All Seasons’

Review: No Battle of Wits in This Mild ‘Man for All Seasons’

What is a person of principle to do when the ruler he serves is consumed with reckless vanity?

For Sir Thomas More, the sharp-witted chancellor at the center of Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” there is no question of following along. Even when he’s sent to the Tower, his life in peril, he remains a quietly intransigent dissenter to the rampaging egomania of King Henry VIII.

“This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made,” More says of himself to his wife, Lady Alice. But he’ll prove that assurance wrong, and when he does — in Christa Scott-Reed’s fitful production in the Acorn Theater at Theater Row — the forced sundering of their bond will genuinely sting. With Michael Countryman as a mild, sweet More and Carolyn McCormick as a fiery, steely Alice, the fond tenderness between them is the anchor of the play.

The king (Trent Dawson) is not that kind of husband, of course. He’s determined to trade his queen for a newer model, and if that means breaking with the pope and declaring himself the head of a new church, so be it. Viewing this course as a violation of divine law, More refuses to endorse it and is charged with treason.

“A Man for All Seasons” won the Tony Award for best play in 1962, and its revival by Fellowship for Performing Arts would appear to be well timed. Mr. Bolt’s text ponders issues that gain urgency in any politically tumultuous moment: the conscience and courage of the powerful, and the impact of ordinary people. (The narrator, played too heavy-handedly by Harry Bouvy, is called the Common Man.)

Ms. Scott-Reed’s uneven staging gets in the way of cohesiveness, though. So does the busy set (by Steven C. Kemp), which seems intended to jazz up proceedings that could do with simplifying to help complex dialogue land. The laugh lines often stumble, too.

That’s despite some nice performances. Mr. Countryman is a warmly sympathetic More, and Ms. McCormick is magnetic — eloquent in her expressiveness even when Alice utters not a word. Kevyn Morrow is charismatic as their old friend the Duke of Norfolk, while John Ahlin is vivid and comical in two roles, as the ingratiating diplomat Chapuys and More’s enemy, Cardinal Wolsey. (Fans of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”: Some of your favorite characters are here.)

But this production otherwise denies More the requisite worthy adversaries, which throws off the equilibrium and dulls the storytelling. There’s no grandeur to Mr. Dawson’s Henry, and the whims of his mercurial mind feel less sudden than scripted.

As Thomas Cromwell, More’s prosecutorial nemesis, Todd Cerveris has thuggishness enough but not the bristling intelligence that elevated the lowborn Cromwell to power. It doesn’t help that his studded black ensemble (the one misstep among Theresa Squire’s otherwise handsome period costumes) makes him look like a character in “Mad Max: The Musical.”

Late in the performance, sound effects (by John Gromada) abruptly intrude — murmurs of an unseen courtroom crowd, caught up in the drama. In a more coherent production, we might have been, too.

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