NEW YORK — TIMON OF ATHENS Play by William Shakespeare. At the Lyceum Theatre through Dec. 20.
FIRST things first. Just the fact that Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre (NAT) is presenting Shakespeare's ``Timon of Athens'' on Broadway is something for which to be grateful. The playwright's uncompleted last play is rarely performed, and it hasn't been done in New York within memory.
That the production is excellent is only part of the story. This much-maligned company finally seems to be getting its act together, with this show and last year's ``Saint Joan.'' They wisely forego the star approach and concentrate instead on intelligent, traditional productions of the classics, directed and acted with comprehension and intelligence.
Much of the credit goes to NAT artistic adviser Michael Langham, the director of this production (and ``Saint Joan''). He clearly knows what he is doing. ``Timon of Athens'' grows out of an earlier production of the play that Langham directed for the Stratford Festival in Ontario, also with Brian Bedford in the title role.
The play, a lesser effort of Shakespeare's, comes across as an enervated and unpoetic ``King Lear,'' minus the grandeur. Timon, a wealthy Athenian, is overly generous, squandering his fortune on the lavish treatment of his friends and colleagues. When his wealth is depleted, he comes to them for help, only to be rebuffed.
Penniless, Timon retreats to the woods, cursing his fate and mankind in general. A subplot concerns Alcibiades, an army captain and friend of Timon's who is exiled because of his opposition to the government.
Langham's production is updated to the jazz age, complete with Art Deco settings and music by Duke Ellington (commissioned for the original Stratford production in 1963). This is less obtrusive than it sounds and adds a subtext perfectly appropriate to this morality tale of thoughtless excess.
Bedford is probably the leading classical actor of North America - he is both a superb technician, delivering the verse with utter clarity and precision, and a wonderfully emotive performer. He imbues Timon with a poignant quality that helps us sympathize with his plight. The actor, dashing in Act I and decrepit in Act II, gives a superbly modulated performance. This is Bedford's first New York appearance in a classical role in years (he received a Tony nomination for the contemporary play ``Two Shakespearean Actors'').
The supporting performances are equally well-acted: Michael Cumpsty as Alcibiades; Jack Ryland as Flavius, Timon's loyal steward; and John Franklyn-Robbins as the cynic Apemantus, a sort of Greek chorus.
The ensemble performs with a precision and consistency that was lacking in the NAT's earlier productions. Langham's production, brilliantly lit by Richard Nelson, is fluid and well-paced, and, except for an over-reliance on gunfire and an excessively bombastic battle scene, never makes a false step.
Even if this wasn't the only production of ``Timon of Athens'' to be found, it would likely be considered definitive.