‘Lion in Winter’ to roar at Two River Theater

Dee Hoty (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and Michael Cumpsty (Henry II) in "The Lion in Winter" at Two River Theater directed by Tyne Rafaeli, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, scenic Design by Kristen Robinson and costumes by Andrea Hood. (PHOTO: T Charles Erickson)
Dee Hoty (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and Michael Cumpsty (Henry II) in “The Lion in Winter” at Two River Theater directed by Tyne Rafaeli, lighting by Jennifer Tipton,
scenic Design by Kristen Robinson and
costumes by Andrea Hood. (PHOTO: T Charles Erickson)

Between them, actors Michael Cumpsty and Dee Hoty have been in 29 Broadway shows and earned four Tony Award nominations.

They pop up often as guest stars on TV shows filmed in and around the New York metro area, including “Blue Bloods,” “Law and Order,” “Elementary,” “Madam Secretary” and “Smash.” They also do the occasional feature films.

Asked what they prefer doing, the answer was a resounding “being on the stage,” especially in regional theaters such as the Two River Theater where they open tomorrow night in “The Lion in Winter” in the lead roles of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

“It’s a very different thing than working in theaters in New York,” Cumpsty said during a joint interview. “In many ways, it’s more satisfying. This rehearsal we had today was so rich and exploratory and fun and stimulating. You don’t get that in in New York.”

Hoty agreed.

“No, you don’t get that in commercial theater,” she said. “On Broadway there’s a producer who wants to make his money back, wants to see a return on his investment.

“Not-for-profits have boards of directors. They can afford — and I don’t mean just financially — but can afford the time of giving you room to get the work done, the best work you can do.”

Dee Hoty (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Madeleine Rogers (Alais) and Michael Cumpsty (Henry II) in "The Lion in Winter" at Two River Theater. (PHOTO: T Charles Erickson Photography)
Dee Hoty (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Madeleine Rogers (Alais) and Michael Cumpsty (Henry II) in “The Lion in Winter” at Two River Theater. (PHOTO: T Charles Erickson Photography)

Cumpsty has worked at McCarter Theatre in Princeton in “My Fair Lady,” “Electra” and “Coriolanus.” Previous Two River shows include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Present Laughter,” “Absurd Person Singular” and this season’s opener “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Hoty gave a well-received performance in “Follies” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. She also starred as the mom in “Rich Girl” at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, a co-production with the Cleveland Play House in her hometown.

She is known mostly for musicals, including “Footloose!,” “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public” and “The Will Rogers Follies” — all of which earned her Tony Award nominations as Best Actress in a Musical.

“I’’m just in a place now where I want to do more plays and I was offered this role on a plate,” she said about playing Eleanor. “There’s nothing wrong with musicals. Made a lot of money doing them. Happy to do some more.

“But as a woman of a certain age, there just aren’t as many roles for me as there are in plays,” she added.

Geography also helps. She lives in Manhattan and Cumpsty lives in Middletown.

“It’s easy to all all those theaters by train,” she said. “All of them have great staffs and production values. You know you’re in good hands.”

Another reason both actors liked the play is its complexity. Written by James Goldman and first produced on Broadway in 1966, it is best known through the movie released two years later starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn (the Broadway version starred Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris).

Set in a castle in France in 1183, it focuses on a family’s personal and political conflicts. Henry’s eldest son has died and the three remaining sons are fighting to be named heir: John, 16, the weakest, is played by Noah Averbach-Katz; Geoffrey, 25, the schemer, by Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Richard, 26, strong and tough, by KeiLyn Durrel Jones.

Additional cast includes Madeleine Rogers as Alais, who was contracted to marry Richard but is Henry mistress, and Ronald Peet as Phillip II, king of France just three years, who has been bedded by Richard and is Alais’ brother.

The play was not successful when first staged, Cumpsty said.  The film version was a commercial success.

“What we’ve discovered in rehearsals is that it is … under appreciated. I think it’s a much better play. Henry is brilliant. The plot is brilliant,” Cumptsy explained.

“The movie gives you the impression it’s like Noel Coward. It’s glittering, on the surface, and fabulously brittle, and these people have terribly complex lives. What matters is how beautifully they speak about them.

“What we’re discovering about the play in rehearsals is that actually its about people with messy lives and they can be as funny as hell about it,” he said.

“And attractive,” Hoty inserts. “There’s an attraction to watching smart people have smart, witty conversations. For me, anyway.”

“Even when they discover they’ve made some really bad choices,” Cumptsy adds.

“I’m guessing it might not be done as much because people are afraid to do it because of the language, which is not Shakespearean, but almost,” she suggested. “And it makes you think about history.”

The play is directed by Tyne Rafaeli, whom both actors said is “smart” and “impressive.” She’s a longtime associate director to Bartlett Sher, has directed classics, new plays and musicals in London and the U.S.

“I feel stupid around her,” Hoty said.

“She’s artistically brilliant and technically brilliant,” Cumptsy said. “It’s like she went to four different schools of direction and assimilated everything she was taught.”

“She’s like the woman with 14 brains,” Hoty added. “She’s challenging. We’re taking the script apart and breaking it down so she’s clear about what’s happening which is a way to make sure we’re clear.”

“What’s fun about it is, just around the time audience members may think they’ve got it figured out — like a murder mystery, which this is not — it turns directions and wow, it’s really exciting,” Cumptsy said. “We’re going to take you on this really cool journey.”

THE LION IN WINTER, Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., through Dec. 4. Tickets $40 to $70, with discounts available. $20 tickets age 30 and younger, and for partial view. 732-345-1400 or tworivertheater.org.  

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