First penned in 1897, Edmond Rostand’s beloved drama Cyrano de Bergerac famously introduced the word “panache” into the English language. The concept, of course, is capably embodied by its eponymous hero, the fierce poet cum swordsman with the ready pen and the giant nose. Small wonder that so many famous actors have taken on the rewarding role, from Constant Coquelin to Jose Ferrer to Ralph Richardson to Derek Jacobi to Kevin Kline and on and on. Now, in the New Group’s current production of the classic, adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt, the star is Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones). And while this musical version is darker and moodier than the original, it has at least as much panache as ever, albeit in a minor key.
The play opens on another play as we see the heroine, beautiful young Roxanne (Jasmine Cephas Jones, Hamilton), given a brief backstage tour by an actor before she’s rushed away, and the play-within-a-play begins. But scarcely has that faux curtain risen when a roaring voice from the real audience calls a halt. It’s Cyrano – backing up his poetic sensibility with his fearsome sword skills to put an end to the inferior performance, even though it means spending his last sou to buy out the theater.
It’s a daring beginning for a playwright as well as for Cyrano, but that bravura gesture makes for a smashingly effective entrance, and Dinklage takes full advantage of it. He’s masterful in conjuring up Cyrano’s complexities, even down to his uncharacteristically shy worship of his distant cousin and childhood companion, Roxanne, who thinks she’s in love with a handsome but not very verbal young soldier, Christian (Blake Jenner). Bold and brooding, Dinklage brings a depth to the hero that goes beyond the Pinocchio-like caricature of the poet-soldier ashamed of his enormous schnozz. In fact, Schmidt, who’s married to Dinklage, not only doesn’t have him wear the familiar fake nose that so many other actors have endured, she even ensures that the proboscis is only referred to early on, to set the scene, and then drops out of the text. It’s a telling omission, and one that brings a new gravitas to this old chestnut as the prodigious hero takes on the mantle of everyman. And that just makes it even more painful as the obvious hero accepts the role of second fiddle in Roxanne’s affections and agrees to protect Christian for her. And of course, unbeknownst to her, he also agrees to be the inarticulate heartthrob’s voice and woo her for his rival through his letters.
Everywoman is a little more challenging, though. Last season Rostand’s play was the villain in Therese Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet for its unrealistic and insipid heroine. This revisiting attempts to bring more spark to Roxanne. She’s not just spunky in this production (yes, think a touch of Mary Tyler Moore), she’s actually akin in her strategizing to Cyrano himself – as when she tricks the sinister but lovestruck De Guiche (a capably insinuating Ritchie Coster) into not taking his enemy Cyrano off to war. (Of course, she’s conniving in order to keep her beloved Christian safe from the frontlines, too.) But there’s not much that can be done with Roxanne’s flouncy pouting at Christian’s attempts to express himself, as they’re built into the play. Without them, the famous balcony scene in which Cyrano woos the woman he loves for the man she loves can’t happen, and even in this revisionist version, that set piece is central.
Though in many particulars the play stays true to the contours of the original, its feel is very different, simple, stylized and more than a little emo. The National’s Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger, along with Carin Besser, created simply worded, streamlined, sometimes bleak songs that complement the effectively austere sets and deep character dives. Dinklage’s timelessly rough bass and Jones’ unmistakably contemporary delivery don’t always mesh, and some of the choreography can feel heavy-handed, as it is during the otherwise effective ensemble number about soldiers’ last thoughts on the battlefield. On balance, though, the music helps bring out the play’s soul – the sadness and pensiveness that have always underlain the original – enriching and refining it. Panache there is aplenty, but this intriguing production suggests the layers of loss and longing that lie beneath.