Looking Back at Two Dueling 'Macbeths'

THEATER: REVIEW

TWO SHAKESPEAREAN ACTORS Play by Richard Nelson. Directed by Jack O'Brien. At the Cort Theatre through Feb. 9.

'TWO Shakespearean Actors" commemorates and embellishes events surrounding a sensationally tragic event in New York theatrical history. The source of the trouble was the rivalry between two stage stars of the 19th-century: the American Edwin Forrest and the British William Macready. Their simultaneous performances of "Macbeth" in 1849 caused riots in which at least 30 people lost their lives and many more were injured.

Playwright Richard Nelson dramatizes the cataclysmic episode in robustly theatrical fashion. With a degree of justifiable dramatic license, Mr. Nelson and his actors simulate the circumstances of a spectacle grounded in an era when theatrical celebrities occupied the kind of pop status that rock stars enjoy today.

The dramatic action takes place between May 3 and 10, 1849, moving fluidly among various Manhattan locales, especially the stages and backstages of the Broadway Theatre and the Astor Place Opera House. It was at the Opera House that Macready's "Macbeth" provoked the disturbances that caused the Astor Place riot. Nelson recounts how the behavior of Macready's elite following and Forrest's "rowdies" contributed to the tragedy.

"Two Shakespearean Actors" speculates on events and conversations that might have taken place. The stars - Brian Bedford's Macready and Victor Garber's Forrest - expound their theories of acting, debate the playing of the Bard, and provide the spectator with incidental biographical information. Each actor entertains a grudging respect for the other.

Forrest performs an excerpt from "Metamora," one of his most celebrated vehicles - an excerpt automatically calculated to draw laughter from a latter-day audience. Nelson also has the notion of presenting Forrest and Macready, togged out in full highland regalia, doing a kind of "Macbeth" duet. Their Highland fling is nothing if not colorful.

Mr. Bedford, who resembles a thinned-down Charles Laughton, is a thoroughly self-assured Macready, always humorous, often patronizing. Garber, who seems less well served as Forrest, seizes on the "Metamora" moments to suggest a style that captivated mid-19th-century spectators.

Under Jack O'Brien's brisk direction, a nimble Lincoln Center Theater cast conveys the conviviality of theatrical camaraderie. David Jenkins's elaborate scenery encompasses the little old New York of the tale, and Jane Greenwood's handsome costumes add distinction to this odd but sometimes engaging spectacle.

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