lion_in_winter_advance_press_1Tony nominees Michael Cumpsty (center) and Dee Hoty (third from right) head up the cast of THE LION IN WINTER, going up in previews this weekend at Two River Theater. (photo by Amanda Crommett) 

Granted, it unfolds during a holiday family reunion — but as Michael Cumpsty makes sure to point out, The Lion in Winter “is NOT technically a Christmas play.” Unless, of course, you take into consideration the various head games, back-stabbings, subterfuges, jealousies and favoritism that make the late James Goldman’s script (set during the Yuletide of the year 1183) pretty much exactly like your most agita-inducing seasonal family traditions.

Still, given the timing of the Two River Theater production that begins previews this Saturday, November 12, it could just as easily be regarded as what Cumpsty calls “our election-season play” — one that “began to take on a whole other significance” as “we got into a crazier and crazier space.”

The winner of an Obie award for his celebrated Off Broadway take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet — and a Broadway veteran whose many credits include Sunday in the Park with George, 42nd Street and a Tony-nominated turn in End of the Rainbow — the Middletown-based Cumpsty has become something of an unofficial artist-in-residence at Two River; having made a solo directorial debut here (with Wendy Wasserstein’s Third), performed the words of playwrights ranging from the Bard to August Wilson (the very recently wrapped Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), and bravely shared a Q&A session with one of the premier scene-stealers of this or any other age, Alec Baldwin.

For The Lion in Winter, the actor stars as King Henry II, the aging (but not done yet) monarch who convenes his conniving and combative extended clan — including exiled wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, his three competing sons, and the shockingly young King of France — for the purpose of selecting a successor to the throne. While the characters and setting might suggest that the native Briton would appear to be back on firm Shakespearean turf, this is very much a modern play by an American writer; first performed in groovy 1966 and charged with sharply accessible language, cynical humor, and an irreverence for political process that nonetheless never threatens to overtake the human heart at its center.

“Henry holds himself to a high standard…but has huge blind spots,” says Cumpsty, adding that the sometimes cavalier king “is seriously invested in the good of the kingdom going forward…he wants stability, and he takes responsibility for his legacy.”

While the ruler has often been portrayed as a mercurial master manipulator, the actor sees a wounded patriarch who “has lost a sense of connection to his children” — the “constant soldier and sometime poet” Richard the Lionheart (Keilyn Durrell Jones), the somewhat enigmatic middle son Geoffrey (Hubert Point-du-Jour), and self-proclaimed “father’s favorite” John (Noah Averbach-Katz), a youngster that Cumpsty diplomatically calls “unprepared” for the responsibility of the crown.

Also apparently in the running is Philip (Ronald Peet), the very young French monarch with his own complicated connections to Henry’s family tree. Lurking at the edges of the intrigue (but deeply engaged in many ways) is Philip’s half sister Alais (Madeleine Rogers), a seeming innocent at large in the company of some seasoned schemers. Then there’s Eleanor, Henry’s queen, returned to the royal court for the festive occasion (the philandering king has kept her imprisoned for some ten years), and possessed with her own finely honed scheming skills. The plum role is played here by Dee Hoty, herself a triple Tony nominee (for Footloose, The Will Rogers Follies, and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public) and a Two River newcomer whose co-star calls her “fantastic; extraordinary good…and really attuned to the part, which she’s played twice before.”

Cumpsty also has some enthusiastic things to say about the work of Andrea Hood (“gorgeous costumes; colorful but not distracting”), Jennifer Tipton (“one of the great lighting designers”), and the show’s acclaimed director, Tyne Rafaeli (“spectacularly smart and rigorous”).

“This play has the potential to be richer and deeper than the surface would suggest,” explains Cumpsty. “It rewards a great deal of exploration, and our director (is) discovering real meat in it…it’s not all glitter and charm.”

“The Lion in Winter” goes up in previews on Saturday, November 12; opening on Friday, November 18 and continuing with a mix of matinee and evening performances through December 4. Take it here to reserve tickets ($20 – $65).