Written and Directed by Young Jean Lee


Off-Broadway, Play; Runs through 2.14.10

Venue: Soho Repertory Theatre, 46 Walker Street

Amelia Workman (as Cordelia), Paul Lazar (as Kent), Okwui Okpokwasili (as Goneril) and April Matthis (as Regan)

in Young Jean Lee's LEAR. Photo by Blaine Davis.

BOTTOM LINE: Quirky, non-linear musings on the egotism of youth and the difficulty of loss from one of downtown’s hottest new voices.

Young Jean Lee, a thirty-something wunderkind of the downtown scene, writes and directs her own surprising investigations into the modern psyche with titles like Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and last year’s fun and shocking The Shipment. She is inventive and bold, works with a heaping helping of Gen-Y confidence, and approaches irony with a straight face that gives no hint as to who is in on the joke and who is not.

Lee is also a former PhD student in English who spent five years studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, and has returned to that masterwork for succor and solace as she grapples with a personal tragedy that is loosely related to the play, without all the eye-gouging and storm-braving. (She has asked the press to refrain from revealing private details, and we gladly respect her wishes).

Lee’s LEAR starts after the old King has been banished from his own homes by his elder daughters, after banishing his youngest, Cordeila, to exile in France. It posits an alternate world in which a very modern Regan and Goneril suffer the attentions of Edmund and Edgar, while stuck in the restrictive but rich confines of their palace and their corseted gowns. Cordelia returns from France to rub her dad’s nose in her broad-minded acceptance, only to become embittered when she finds him not at home. They all spend sleeplessness nights and claustrophobic days sniping at one another as they retreat from the knowledge that they too will end up like their fathers: alone, destitute, old, and eventually dead.

Yet what we are really watching is Lee herself, metatheatrically sifting through the ashes of this great story for something that will soothe her own insomniac fears. And that’s where it gets difficult.

At this point you may be thinking “What is this guy talking about? Sesame Street and Shakespeare? (see Five Points or Less, above) Swearing women in period dress? Metatheatrics?!!! Give me a break!"

And that might be your response for most of this 90-minute piece. The random writing structures, all expertly played by the five-member ensemble, clearly have some intensely personal meaning to Lee, but to call that meaning opaque would be generous. Even the 30- and 40-something hipsters at the press opening that I attended (never a crowd to be left on the outside of anything) were staring with head cocked to the side in an RCA-dog-like look smiling ambivalently and searching for any shred of a through-line onto which they could grab hold.

Lee never gives us that. But in a clever bit of pop-culture archeology, she does eventually let us in on what is driving her restless intellectual and emotional quest for meaning. As we watch the cast of Sesame Street try to explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper is never coming back, there is a sudden flash of recognition, of identification with this young woman, struggling through Shakespeare and Jim Henson to understand what is happening to her own heart.

Ultimately it may only be an investigation into exactly how far we have to get up our own behinds before we find something of real emotional value, but Lee does really find something good up there. Whatever this LEAR may or may not be, we can be grateful for the new, brave and original voice that gave it to us.

(LEAR plays at Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street between Broadway and Church, through February 14th. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30pm. Tickets are $30 and $40 for premium reserved seating (for performances February 3rd through 6th tickets are $40 and $50 for premium reserved seating). Get 99 cent tickets for all Sunday performances through January 31st. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling TheatreMania at 212.352.3101. For additional information about Lear or Soho Rep., visit