Frank Langella said recently that he'd like to be one of those animals in the jungle that no one can stop watching. It is a self-observation so keen that I will think of it whenever I can't stop watching him.
Which is just about always. Langella, no longer the dashing romantic whose late-'70s Dracula had actresses in Victorian frocks lined up to present him their jugulars, is at Brooklyn Academy of Music with his first "King Lear." Director Angus Jackson's production, an import from England's Chichester Festival Theatre, is straightforward, drab, standard-issue Shakespeare with a competent cast -- sometimes better and occasionally worse (a jarringly weak Cordelia) -- and an excellent drenching rainstorm on the heath.
But Langella is never less than surprising and compelling in this daunting mountain of tragic poetry and family business, what many believe to be one of the great tragedies -- so long as you don't expect the women characters to make a bit of psychological sense. If America had an old-time classical theater, Langella and his three Tonys would be up there with the master thespians, a grand and gutsy performer of serious -- sometimes self-serious -- majesty.
We first see this old Lear still feeling important but physically creaky, a man who, even as a royal icon, cannot escape the heavy shoulders and recalcitrant joints that come with those bushy eyebrows. When he demands his three daughters express who loves him most -- to me, one of the least forgivable acts of all Shakespeare's flawed heroes -- he still takes his entitlement for granted.
How moving that, after being cast out by his ungrateful daughters, his raging madness takes on an air of the coquet and, as he realizes his profound mistakes, he actually seems lighter, younger. Langella, banished in an ancient man's night shirt and a straw crown, comes back to a tactile, sensual, visceral humanity. As a grieving, finally wise father, he is even more of a man.
Denis Conway makes an especially lucid and sympathetic Gloucester, Steven Pacey's Kent is at least as amusing, in a dark way, as Lear's Fool -- played unusually young and loving by Harry Melling, whom you may recognize as Harry Potter's obnoxious cousin Dudley.
To his credit, Jackson keeps Lear's ungrateful daughters from overplaying the ugly-stepsisters-in-Cinderella routines. But I'm still waiting for a production that explains, even a little, what happened to these girls that turned them into monsters.
WHAT "King Lear"
WHERE BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., through Feb. 9
INFO $25-$125; 718-636-4100; bam.org
BOTTOM LINE Standard-issue production, compelling Langella as Lear