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Theater Review: 'King Lear' -- 2 stars

Michael McKean, left, and Sam Waterston in "King

Michael McKean, left, and Sam Waterston in "King Lear." (Joan Marcus) Credit: Michael McKean, left, and Sam Waterston in "King Lear." (Joan Marcus)

King Lear
2 stars

The Public Theater's new production of "King Lear," which stars Sam Waterston as the aging monarch, marks the third major staging of the tragedy to hit New York this year. But given the poor quality of this version, you get the sense it's time to move on to a different Shakespeare play.

Although Waterston is best known for his longtime stint with "Law & Order," he has a long history of performing Shakespeare with the Public Theater - for example, he's appeared in three different versions of "Hamlet," playing Laertes, Polonius and Hamlet himself.

As Lear, Waterston isn't exactly giving the performance of his career, but that could have a lot to do with the puzzling and often inexplicable direction of James Macdonald, who is better known for staging contemporary plays by the likes of Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks.

Macdonald frames the empty stage with a curtain made out of metal chains, which the actors must laboriously and loudly pass through. The lighting and sound effects used to mark the raging storm are handled in an amateurish style.

Waterston performs in a whiny, odd and over-the-top manner that is more suggestive of physical than emotional trauma. As a result, it's hard to take his portrayal of the character too seriously, especially when he tries to demonstrate Lear's altered state of mind by flipping his hair.

At least Waterston is backed here by many veteran actors in the supporting roles, including Bill Irwin (who utilizes his talent for physical comedy as the Fool), Frank Wood (Cornwall), John Douglas Thompson (Kent), Michael McKean (Gloucester) and Kelli O'Hara (Regan).

If you go: "King Lear" plays at the Public Theater through Sun. 425 Lafayette St., 212-967-7555, 

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