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'Nice guy' Cyrano de Bergerac could benefit from sharing the spotlight with Roxane

'Cyrano de Bergerac' at the Guthrie Theater.

'Cyrano de Bergerac' at the Guthrie Theater. Photograph © T Charles Erickson

As the Guthrie Theater points out in its Cyrano de Bergerac program, Edmond Rostand's 1897 play has been widely adapted and reimagined—from two Broadway musicals to the 1987 movie Roxanne to the 2018 Netflix film Sierra Burgess Is a Loser.

The Guthrie's production is a reminder of why this story's intrigued so many generations of artists, but also a reminder of why they keep feeling the need to tweak it.

That includes Joseph Haj, who created his own adaptation in 2006 when the existing English versions didn't quite feel right to him. It's a revised take on that version he now directs on the McGuire Proscenium Stage, and it still doesn't feel quite right. It leaves you wanting to see this entire story reexamined from the perspective of Roxane, the woman who ostensibly motivates the plot's key conflict but who remains a very distant second banana.

By the time of Cyrano's interminable concluding monologue, what was always implicit becomes crystal clear: Even though Haj labored to strengthen her character, this story was never really about Roxane (Jennie Greenberry); it was always about her admirer and his wearisome self-loathing. In the title role, Jay O. Sanders emerges from the back of the auditorium nose-first. Preemptively mocking his outsized proboscis, Cyrano assumes he's unlovable.

Unfortunately, what the script takes to be Cyrano's most irresistible qualities—his sharp wit and effortless eloquence—are precisely what make him so insufferable onstage. Cyrano thunders into a theater-within-a-theater, lobbing insults until he's compelled to defend himself with a rapier... and whaddya know, he's also a peerless swordsman. Meanwhile, Roxane sits up in the balcony, a silent onlooker.

The ensemble hit their marks in the play's comic opening scenes, but none of the other characters manage to escape Cyrano's gravity well. Every scene comes back to Bergerac, whether he's putting words of love into the mouth of the handsome but inarticulate Christian (Robert Lenzi) or saving the day during a military siege. It's hard to feel much sympathy for the heartsick Cyrano when he keeps getting all the good lines.

Under Haj's artistic direction, the Guthrie has regularly produced engaging shows that both entertain and challenge audiences. While Cyrano has its share of entertaining moments (particularly those involving Ansa Akyea's good-hearted performance as a baker-cum-poet), the only thing this play really challenges is our patience. Despite Cyrano's highflown epigrams, the play as a whole is the most blandly middlebrow offering Haj has directed since taking his post in 2015.

Fortunately, the rich production design does offer some compensation for the eyes and ears. McKay Coble's set cleverly deconstructs over the course of the show, gradually transitioning from an ornate cabinet to a minimal frame evoking the austere convent where the play concludes. Composer Jack Herrick's songs create haunting interludes, and the costumes by Jan Chambers are sinfully sumptuous.

In the end, though, we just get sick of this Cyrano. Imagine if Bill Murray instead of Steve Martin had starred in Roxanne, and you'll get a sense of why Sanders grates: The more loudly he demands our sympathy, the less we want to give it to him. Of course the self-deprecating Cyrano never asks outright, but no other character gets to meaningfully compete for our attention.

Even at curtain call, just as Greenberry steps to center stage for her ably earned adulation, we see Sanders' symbolically white-feathered hat making its way toward the gap in the assembled cast. Roxane, yet another symbolic shadow quavering in the cave of Cyrano's vaunted mind, is going to have to step aside yet again.