Most dramas begin under a shroud of mystery, introducing us to unfamiliar people and slowly spilling the facts of their situation. In THE LAST WILL, playwright Robert Brustein works backwards, taking a single fact--- the final testament of William Shakespeare--- and attempting to solve the mystery behind it. The resulting play, which imagines the final, syphilis-ridden years of Shakespeare's life upon returning to Stratford, only sometimes succeeds as an evening of theater. But its answers are certainly likely to provide Bardolators with plenty to discuss (and debate) over drinks after the show.
Of course, those same devotees should already know the questions behind it. Why, for instance, did Shakespeare bequeath to his wife only his "second-best bed?" Why did his older daughter, Susanna, receive most of his fortune, leaving his youngest, Judith, with so little? And what's with the unusual signature? Brustein has plausible answers to each of these puzzlements, and he'll be borrowing quite a bit from the Bard to relate them.
Indeed, giving a summary of THE LAST WILL is much like taking a tour of the Bard's most familiar plots. Brustein has infused the script with a barrel full of allusions to the plays, implying that, in his later years, the great poet (let's call him Will from now on) mixed up fact and fiction to the point where he couldn't tell the difference. At the play's beginning, Will has found his brother clutching a handkerchief that belongs to Will's wife, Anne, and he immediately accuses the two of an illicit affair. Soon, he casts doubt on the legitimacy of his daughter Judith, at first denying her inheritance, and then demanding that she and Susanna compete to prove how much they love him. (If you're keeping track, that's "Othello," "Winter's Tale," and, of course, "King Lear.") Thrown into the mix is his old pal, the actor Richard Burbage, who wants him to return to the stage in London; and also Will's beleaguered attorney, Frances Collins (played winningly by David Wohl.)
It's sort of fun to map out the intertextual points here, and Brustein has put it all together with obvious skill and passion. But I never felt fully invested in the human drama, and that probably has a lot to do with the conception, and representation, of Will himself, who is played by director Austin Pendleton.
A theatrical statesman if there ever were one, Pendleton would seem to be having the time of his life here, tearing about the stage in alternating rage and humiliation. His distinct voice and off-kilter energy can invigorate any line reading, but he sometimes seems a bit too far gone as Will, as if this were a one-man show with the audience as his only scene partner. Stephanie Roth Haberle as his wife, Christianna Nelson as Judith, and Merritt Janson as Susanna, while all likable, don't register too strongly, which further unbalances the domestic drama.
The life of this enigmatic artist from Stratford will always be the subject of speculation and wonder. But in the end, what matters are the works he produced, and Brustein has concocted a reasonable bit of staged dramaturgy about the possible motivations behind them.