'Macbeth' review: One-man Cumming triumph

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REVIEW

Alan Cumming has played a wild variety of outrageous characters since the Scottish-born actor made his American debut as the pansexual Emcee in "Cabaret" 15 years ago. Until now, perhaps none has been more surprising than his very straight middle-American campaign manager in "The Good Wife."

And still one may not be prepared for the intensity, the fierce discipline and range he reveals in "Macbeth." He plays all the major characters -- and some of the minor ones -- in an exhausting 110-minute solo that re-imagines Shakespeare's Scottish play in a hospital for the criminally insane.

As anyone knows who saw the production during its brief run at last summer's Lincoln Center Festival, this is far more than a high-concept gimmick. The import from the National Theatre of Scotland may not have much literally to add to one of Shakespeare's best-known, least nuanced action-tragedies. Oddly enough, however, the theatricality does.

This is a dark, visceral, altogether lucid bravura showcase for quality showing-off. And Cumming -- speaking in his multicolored Scottish burr -- is dazzling in it.

In fact, his characterizations are more clearly delineated than they seemed last summer. Also, the intimate Broadway playhouse brings us closer and deeper into the storytelling. To everyone's enormous credit, Cumming doesn't use high voices for the women or change much more than a gesture as he morphs through the psychological turmoil of Macbeth, his Lady and their massive collateral damage.

We first see Cumming as a new patient in the vast sick-green emptiness of an old hospital. If not for three (shrewdly-used) closed-circuit TVs and a code-lock on the door, the place could be a nightmare of a Victorian madhouse. He is a febrile stranger with unexplained blood on his shirt and gouges on his chest, which we see a lot because, this being Cumming, he sends a good deal of the time shirtless and, in a bare-butt bathtub scene, pants-less.

He is given hospital whites by two attendants (Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, important but mostly silent), who watch him from a surveillance window and tenderly medicate him when he endangers himself, which he frequently does.

The production has been co-directed by John Tiffany (the Scottish master responsible for such contrasting offbeat creations as "Once" and "Black Watch") and Andrew Goldberg (who runs a physically-driven company here called Shakespeare Gym). Sounds of electronic music, static and faraway noises suggest the ominous zap of bugs on a hot lamp.

Cumming turns his back on us, squats and makes an odd angle with his long arms to instantly become the witches. We know Banquo from the apple he jauntily tosses. We know Banquo is dead when Macbeth takes a bite. Cumming points his wrists upward and uses his hands more as Lady Macbeth, who has sex with her husband before the murder, quite a maneuver in this virtuosic one-man show. Naturally, she's on top.


WHAT "Macbeth"

WHERE Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

INFO $69.50-$150; 212-239-6200; macbethonbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Fierce, disciplined and dazzling Cumming in one-man "Macbeth"

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