There is a satisfying arc to Sam Waterston's life with the Public Theater.
He may be a household face to everyone with even a passing interest in "Law & Order." But in a country with no continuity of classical companies, not many actors have memorably played the young "Hamlet" and the old "King Lear" -- and 10 other of Shakespeare's life markers -- with this same theater.
As you might guess, Waterston is compelling as Lear, though not an obvious match with this daunting mountain of tragic poetry and family business.
More tightly wound and fragile than grandiose and regal, this is a king who begins in madness and descends from there. It is a humanizing interpretation, one that makes Lear's opening test for his three daughters -- who loves him more? -- seem less hateful and more forgivable.
On the other hand, without a height from which to fall, Lear's disastrous exile into the primal heath feels almost small. Waterston finds real panic in Lear's recognition of his growing irrationality and poignantly appears to retreat from his own face as he slips into a childlike oblivion. But finally, when Lear should find transcendent nobility at the death of his mistreated daughter Cordelia (a bland Kristen Connelly), the scene is merely sad.
Director James Macdonald, British specialist in the lean commentary plays of Caryl Churchill, goes for a minimal "Lear" with the court defined by a beaded wall of black chains that tumbles into a heap for the heath. Costumes are a mixed bag vaguely from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Performance quality is also mixed, with an emphasis on clarity over poetry. Michael McKean is especially impressive as the loyal and tortured Gloucester. Arian Moayed, Tony nominated for "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," is convincingly noble and distraught as Gloucester's good son Edgar, while Seth Gilliam has evil fun with bastard son Edmund.
Bill Irwin aims to annoy, which he does in classic clown fashion, as Lear's Fool. Kelli O'Hara, as evil daughter Regan, works hard, to little effect, against her cockeyed optimist musical-comedy stardom. But Enid Graham's Goneril manages to avoid the ugly-stepsister conventions in one of the least credible females Shakespeare ever created.
WHAT "King Lear"
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $85; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE A smaller, perhaps too human mad king