A sometimes spectacular, sometimes merely over-the-top Al Pacino stars as Shylock, the relentlessly insulted yet exploited moneylender called “the Jew” by his Christian tormentors.
Shakespeare’s thorny “Merchant of Venice” is the first of two free Public Theater productions alternating this summer in New York’s Central Park, with “The Winter’s Tale” (reviewed tomorrow).
The deal Shylock makes with the Gentile merchant Antonio -- a pound of his flesh if the 3,000 borrowed ducats are not repaid in three months -- is hardly lacking in monstrosity, whatever measure of humanity Shakespeare grants him.
The play’s other much-debated issue is just what the relationship between Antonio and his young friend Bassanio might be, since their actions and utterances may be too loving for simple friendship.
The staging by Daniel Sullivan settles no arguments. He’s both trimmed and invented. Cut are old Gobbo and the dog. There are also mimed additions that intrigue: Shylock’s savage baptism in a pool and his final assumption of the yarmulke in defiance of the enforced conversion. In a concluding image, his daughter Jessica reads the deed of her inheritance while dangling her feet in the same pool.
In the most marked change, Sullivan has turned the casket scenes into wild, often effective farce.
Pacino’s performance is as broad as can be without seeming unskillful. He brings hard-nosed villainy but also the requisite pathos. All kinds of crowd-pleasing rubatos and rallentandos are accompanied by mighty eyeball-rolling.
The rest of the cast is uneven. Bill Heck is an acceptable Lorenzo; Byron Jennings, an old hand, a solid, well-spoken Antonio. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a delightful Nerissa and Gerry Bamman a suitable Duke of Venice. Jesse Tyler Ferguson will do with what has been left of Launcelot Gobbo. Jesse L. Martin is a lively Gratiano, only sometimes overdoing it.
Lily Rabe’s Portia, lacking in charm as the lovely lady of Belmont, is more convincing in her later guise as the male lawyer Balthasar. The miscast Francois Battiste does not sound remotely right as Salerio. Heather Lind is a very pretty but otherwise unpersuasive Jessica. If you enjoy camped-up princes of Morocco and Arragon, then Nyambi Nyambi and Max Wright amply fill the bill.
The real disaster, however, is the Bassanio of Hamish Linklater, who flunks out equally on speech, appearance and demeanor. Carrying on like a less appealing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, he fumbles and bumbles through most of his role.
Sullivan must bear part of the blame. A usually able director, he has come up with a few minor bright ideas but is clearly less at ease with Shakespeare than with contemporary plays. He has also introduced Venetian Carnival characters periodically cluttering up the works and some kind of a dentist’s or electric chair for Antonio to be strapped into.
Mark Wendland’s set is mostly a large circular cast-iron fence, part or all of which can revolve out of sight -- interesting but hardly atmospheric. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are generally good, except for the goofily attired Bassanio. Lighting (Ken Posner) and music (Dan Moses Schreier) are fine. Too bad, though, is the basic unmusicality of American English.
“The Merchant of Venice” alternates with “The Winter’s Tale” through Aug. 1 at the Delacorte Theater; enter Central Park at East 79th or West 81st streets. Tickets are free, though reserved seats are available for a tax-deductible contribution of $350. Information: +1-212-539-8500; http://www.shakespeareinthepark.org Rating: ** 1/2
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(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: John Simon in New York at email@example.com.