NEW YORK — It's almost common now for actors in New York to jump into the audience and roam about the aisles, as if the stage can't contain them. Douglas Hodge has them all beat: The theater itself can't contain him.
A new Roundabout Theatre Company production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" is just getting started when the doors along 43rd Street are rattled and from outside comes Hodge, a plume in his wide hat, a sword at his side and a blue streak coming out of his mouth. A ripple of nervousness comes across the audience as the shadowy Cyrano storms about in darkness.
It's a brilliant touch of unsettling stagecraft from director Jamie Lloyd and Hodge, a Tony Award winner for "La Cage aux Folles" who pours a great deal of energy and defaces his own attractiveness to play the grotesquely nosed hero in the show that opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre.
Alas, there's not enough of such startling touches to keep this production vibrant. Despite a wonderfully yeasty Hodge, an always welcome Patrick Page and a lovely Clemence Poesy as Roxane, this "Cyrano" often lumbers over its 2 hours and 45 minutes, tending to get bogged down in the florid, repetitive verse.
This production features a translation of Edmond Rostand's original French by Ranjit Bolt entirely in rhyming couplets, which sounds like it might be like a children's book. Not to worry: The rhymes sneak up on you and never announce themselves garishly.
Of that famous nose, Bolt writes, "You see it and you can't help crying out: 'Jumping Jehoshaphat! What's that about?'" And Cyrano's balcony scene is unabashedly romantic: "My wildest dreams never encompassed this!/All that remains now is to die of bliss!" our hero tells his beloved. The content of the writing isn't the problem, it's just there's so much of it that it often drags down the swashbuckling tale.
Lloyd and the creative team have boldly created a messy world for Cyrano, one that's bawdy and smoky and where food gets tossed around. The sword fights are serious and there's quite a bit of sticks rhythmically hitting furniture.
Hodge gives his all to a man who is an arrogant swordsman and overcompensating braggart, but one who gets tongue-tied and mousey when it comes to actually telling Roxane how he feels. His Cyrano is cartoonish but he manages to keep him from becoming camp. It's clear that this boisterous Cyrano has been created from the ruins of a scarred and hurt man, which Hodge reveals over time.
Cyrano's love, of course, loves another, so Cyrano becomes the ventriloquist to a good-looking dummy, Christian, played with increasing pathos by Kyle Soller. Another rival, Page, is perfectly cast — his voice, his size, his sonorous delivery are of a man who is self-consciously noble amid a group of rougher souls.
"Cyrano" needs a knockout for Roxane — the character is, after all, the object of so much love — and Poesy, making her Broadway debut, fits the bill in an understated way. She's luminous and strong at the same time, with a natural French accent and a show-me-or-shut-up irritation when being wooed.
Soutra Gilmour has created both the sets and costumes and emerges with bulky, heavy outfits for the gentlemen — Page unfortunately begins to resemble Puss in Boots — that seem lived-in and worn. Her balconies, wooden doors, stone castles and arched walkways look similarly ancient.
Japhy Weideman's lighting alternates from trying to make things look like a Renaissance painting to everything looking quite dim, except for a moment toward the end at a convent when rows of bulbs on stage suddenly become visible and the backlit effect is ruined.
One is reminded while watching this "Cyrano" that it is a valentine to the theater itself. It starts with a scene outside a theater and its hero basically feeds lines to an actor. It is a play about the importance of words, but too many can also kill momentum.
This production may be a tad overdone, overstuffed and overwrought at times, but it has something that Cyrano himself considered one of the most important things in the world. It has panache.