- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

“Henry IV, Part 1” examines the impetuousness and wastrel ways of youth; its companion, “Henry IV, Part 2,” deals with old age and the price we pay for our vices.

“Henry IV, Part 1” may be notable for the brash, headstrong behavior of its two main bad boys, the rebel Hotspur (Andrew Long) and Prince Hal (Christopher Kelly), the wayward eldest son of Henry IV (Keith Baxter), who would rather carouse with Falstaff (Ted van Griethuysen ) in London’s taverns than assume his natural role as a leader. “Henry IV, Part 2” is often thought of as a richer, deeper experience because of its burnished treatment of the compromises and afflictions of old age.

The Shakespeare Theatre’s production, directed at a processional pace by Bill Alexander, captures the long nap of aging and death almost too well. The gloomy wooden set does little to lift one’s spirits, as does the uninspired staging. By the end of the second act, your body and soul cry out for release.

Oddly enough, the proceedings are not enlivened by the younger actors, but by the stage veterans who know how to squeeze every bit of life out of a scene.

Thankfully, both plays feature the irascible figure of Falstaff, played with zaftig bonhomie by Mr. van Griethuysen. In his capable hands, Falstaff is not merely a boozy glutton, but a more humanistic rascal and, truth be told, a bit of a dandy. In his spiffy red velvet jacket, yellow linen shirt and burgundy hat with feathered cockade, Falstaff is the Elizabethan version of the urbane Orson Welles in his post-“Citizen Kane” years.

In the second play, the years weigh as heavily on Falstaff as do the pounds. His darting wit is as strong as ever, yet he bemoans not having worthy adversaries for verbal sparring. His jaunty gait is compromised by gout, and his chronic lack of funds has become tedious even to him.

Wine and women have not abandoned him, although his debaucheries are confined to prostitute Dolly Tearsheet (Naomi Jacobson, who gives dimension to tipsiness) and tavern hostess Mistress Quickly (the comically addled Nancy Robinette), ladies who are going brawling into that post-menopausal good night.

Falstaff has simply outstayed his welcome. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his paternal relationship with Prince Hal. With his father dying and the nation in a fragile peace, Prince Hal must step up and devote himself to civic duty — in short, become an administrative wonk just like his dear old dad. That means turning away from his dissolute life, rejecting Falstaff and all he stands for — namely, infinite jest and misrule.

Most kings need a jester, but not the sober-minded Prince Hal, who, by the end of the play, has been crowned Henry V. He publicly and sanctimoniously humiliates Falstaff in the famous coronation scene in Act Two — necessary perhaps, but did he have to be such a cold priss about it?

One’s sympathies lie with Falstaff in this version of “Henry IV, Part 2,” partly because of Mr. van Griethuysen’s skill — one example of his jaunty dissolution has him leaning casually against a crucifix to have a good chin-wag — and partly because Mr. Kelly is a flaccid Prince Hal. His portrayal is callow and unconvincing; he’s more of a cipher than anything else. Mr. Kelly is outclassed at every turn by Keith Baxter’s burning Henry IV — with a son this bland, no wonder he is worried about handing over the monarchy.

The more seasoned actors run off with the play. Not only do Mr. Baxter and Mr. van Griethuysen give the AARP generation a good name, but Emery Battis is a hoot as the lost-in-memory Justice Silence, singing snatches of old ditties every time a conversational topic arises. His partner in yesteryear is Floyd King as Justice Shallow, a man utterly captivated by his roistering past, but not enough to know when he is being scammed by Falstaff.

Maturity rules in the Shakespeare Theatre’s staging of “Henry IV, Part 2,” which has more than its share of sage acting yet would be all the better with some youthful spice.

**

WHAT: “Henry IV, Part 2”

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 2. Playing in repertory with “Henry IV, Part 1” May 5 through 16.

TICKETS: $16 to $66

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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