One of the mourners at Queen Elizabeth's funeral says "I never thought I would see her pass away," to which an aging Prince Charles, finally preparing to ascend to the throne, answers "I felt the same."
Are we meant to laugh at that line, as many did at the preview I saw of "King Charles III"? Does playwright Mike Bartlett want the exchange to be a cheap joke, a camped-up wink at the tabloid-ready burdens of the royal family? Or is this supposed to be character-defining insight into the poor man who waited a lifetime to be king, or even a tribute to the woman who, as a kebab vendor later says to Prince Harry, held the Empire together like the string on a hunk of meat?
This is just the first of many perplexing moments in the Olivier-winning London smash, times when I felt tossed around by the inconsistent tone and confusing intentions in what is cleverly subtitled "a future history play." Written in blank verse, no less, complete with soliloquys, the faux sequel to Shakespeare's history plays is expertly performed, especially by Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, and stylishly directed with stark pomp by Rupert Goold. Ultimately, however, the play feels more trivial than its pretense wants us to believe.
There is a serious center, a crisis between the British Parliament and the royals, a power clash that arises when Charles refuses to sign a bill that would limit freedom of the press. As Broadway audiences know from "The Audience," Helen Mirren's Elizabeth was hyper-aware that the Crown's power is ceremonial. When Charles' conscience won't let him be a rubber stamp for the House of Commons, the nation's constitutional identity and the royal future verge on civil war.
This sounds fascinating, right? Unfortunately, Bartlett can't resist having too much fun with the well-known personalities. Kate (Lydia Wilson) and Camilla (Margot Leicester) are manipulative and ambitious enough to have learned from Lady Macbeth. Oliver Chris' William is an admirable straight arrow and Richard Goulding's Harry a touching lost soul almost rescued by a bright commoner (Tafline Steen).
But a giggle-inducing ghost of Diana keeps floating in, partly Hamlet's dead father but mostly a prophesying witch from "Macbeth." Women, except for the dead Queen, are not liked in this play.
Pigott-Smith makes Charles both pure and foolish. But does Bartlett really want us to believe the man, after all his years of training, would hide in books instead of mingling with the people? Pigott-Smith crumbles effectively into paranoia and madness, but we are not sure whether we are meant to mock him or to care.
WHAT "King Charles III"
WHERE Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.
INFO $37-$147; 212-239-6200; kingcharlesiiibroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Too jokey to be so serious