Al Pacino is ferociously over-the-top as Shylock, the embittered Jew at the heart of Shakespeare’s black comedy, “The Merchant of Venice.”
Courageously, director Daniel Sullivan avoids making the revenge-thirsty moneylender more assimilated and sympathetic, or the duplicitous Christians less anti-Semitic. Essentially, we have here a comedic Jew, as the playwright no doubt intended him, in a part that today comes close to the tragic.
There have been some improvements in the journey from the Delacorte in Central Park to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway. David Harbour is a manly, perhaps slightly too footballerish Bassanio, but definitely more effective than his predecessor. As Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo, Christopher Fitzgerald brings fresh humor
Mark Wendland’s unit set is a revolving circular fence made of seemingly steel rods surmounted in one place by a metallic tower representing various domiciles. The fence can part, allowing entrances and exits, and is largely compelling without in any way suggesting Venice.
Jess Goldstein’s vaguely modern-dress costumes are effective in their quasi-timelessness, as are the giant heads devised for an interpolated carnival procession. Add dramatic lighting by Kenneth Posner and jolly wigs, dances and scuffles, and credit Sullivan’s engaging conception of the play. Particularly noteworthy are the farcical casket scenes, with Isaiah Johnson and Charles Kimbrough providing expert comedy as Portia’s unsuccessful suitors.
Byron Jennings is a properly affecting, nobly suffering Antonio. As a grating-voiced Portia, Lily Rabe is less so, at least until she dons male garb to give us an uncommonly persuasive masculine defense lawyer.
Pretty Heather Lind is now a better-spoken, more appealing Jessica, the high point of her winsomeness being a daring leap from the tower into the arms of Seth Numrich’s Lorenzo below.
Gerry Bamman is a model Duke of Venice, but Jesse L. Martin’s Gratiano carries bonhomie a bit too close to bluster. Other parts are competently handled, and the verse is generally well spoken, not often the case in American Shakespeare.
Sullivan has added a humiliating baptism as Shylock is dunked in a wading pool, but also a Pyrrhic victory for him when he defiantly dons his yarmulke as he exits.
Unfortunately, the nocturnal love scene for Lorenzo and Jessica falls flat, mostly because the set allows for no moonlit bank and natural beauty.
The pool also enables Jessica to dangle her legs in it, and the director to provide a curious ending. The stage clears of all but Portia, high on the tower, and Jessica below, as they exchange a long, presumably meaningful glance.
Does it signify female power tacitly ruling the world?
Through Jan. 9 at 235 W. 44th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***
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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.)