You come to see Al Pacino, but you stay for Lily Rabe.
As the Jewish moneylender Shylock, one of theater's most complex, reviled roles, Pacino has made the Public Theater "Merchant of Venice" a blockbuster hit -- first in Central Park this summer, now on Broadway for a limited run. Yet it's Rabe who leaves a lasting impression. Bringing illuminating insights to the headstrong heiress Portia, the young actress is the production's real treasure.
Under Daniel Sullivan's direction, "The Merchant of Venice" is fast-paced, engaging, accessible. But by moving indoors, it's also acquired a darker hue.
The somber moments feel even more claustrophobic and gloomy because the Broadhurst's stage is much smaller than the one in the park -- Mark Wendland's wrought-iron set has even acquired a sinister edge, like a cage.
Yet Pacino has gone bigger, unnecessarily turning up the volume since the summer, and losing subtlety in the process.
Looking bedraggled, his shirt half hanging from his shapeless pants, Shylock makes a pitiful figure next to the Christian establishment, haughty tormentors in crisply pressed suits and spotless spats. That Shylock would channel his humiliation and disappointment into vengeful rage is understandable, if not excusable. But does it need to be so obvious?
Typical is Shylock's famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech, which Pacino starts in soft-spoken pain before switching to a saliva-projecting bellow. It's acting with a capital A, and a more conventional way to express anger.
Some of the cast changes work (Christopher Fitzgerald is nicely subdued as Launcelot Gobbo), others are less convincing (Charles Kimbrough pales compared to Max Wright as the Prince of Arragon).
What remains intact -- perhaps even stronger -- is Portia's vibrant intelligence and grace.
She falls for Bassanio (David Harbour), a handsome doofus whose loyalty really lies with his friend Antonio (Byron Jennings, excellent as a repressed patrician). As quick-witted as she is beautiful, Portia helps them triumph in their conflict with Shylock.
But that doesn't mean a happy ending. The supposed winners are left on shaky ground, looking at an uncertain future. Significant is Portia's look of shocked dismay when she realizes the full extent of her new husband's callow idiocy. They've all made their bed -- now they can restlessly toss and turn in it.
They belong to worlds that, in the normal course of events, would never intersect. But Shakespeare, as the creator of their universe, saw fit to let their paths cross just once. And when Portia finally meets Shylock, in Daniel Sullivan’s absolutely splendid production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Broadhurst Theater, the collision lights up the sky.
Giving what promise to be the performances of this season, Lily Rabe, as Portia the heiress, and Al Pacino, as Shylock the usurer, invest the much-parsed trial scene of this fascinating, irksome work with a passion and an anger that purge it of preconceptions. You may find yourself trembling, as one often does when something scary and baffling starts to make sense. At the same time you’re likely to have trouble figuring out exactly where your sympathies lie. For at this moment everybody hurts.
In traditional presentations of Act IV, Scene 1 of “Merchant” Portia, disguised as a male lawyer to rescue a man under threat of death, emerges as an avenging angel; Shylock, viciously poised to kill an enemy in an act of legal redress, is usually the vanquished villain or, in more fashionable contemporary readings, the Jewish victim of a Christian social order reasserting itself.
But what you read in Ms. Rabe’s delicately expressive features is hardly a look of triumph. Her face is that of someone registering a precious and irrevocable loss. In an odd way the fatalistic, shrunken sorrow of Mr. Pacino’s crouched Shylock, who has not only been thwarted of his revenge but also stripped of his identity, seems to mirror Portia’s own state of mind.
The throbbing ambivalence at the heart of Mr. Sullivan’s spirited “Merchant” was evident when it was first staged in Central Park last summer. But this revelatory Public Theater production, which opened on Broadway on Saturday night, has been refined to an even higher level of clarity and subtlety, virtues that do not always walk hand in hand.
There have been a few cast changes since the summer — most for the better and none for the worse. What particularly astonishes is how completely the entire cast seems to inhale the same air. Shakespeare in New York is often a patchwork affair, stitched-together showcases for stars grinding their classical chops and directors with radically hip high concepts. But Mr. Sullivan, his cast and his design team have collectively shaped a “Merchant” that feels utterly fluid and original.
This production gives the lie to theater snobs who insist that only the British can do Shakespeare properly. (You need only compare Mr. Sullivan’s “Merchant” with last season’s rudderless imported London production of “Hamlet” starring Jude Law.)
Using scenic simplicity to complex effect, this “Merchant” exudes elegance, but always in the service of a vision of a society that is, at its core, most inelegant. As designed by Mark Wendland (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Kenneth Posner (lighting), Venice has the look of an Edwardian London held captive by its love of lucre. A ticker-tape machine looms center stage, set off by cagelike, circular walls that separate, define and confine the inhabitants of a rigidly stratified city.
Before a word is spoken we’re aware of how physically divided the insiders (the prosperous investors of the city) are from the outsiders (the Jewish moneylenders, who come to do business). At the same time, as with the great novels of Charles Dickens, we feel the pervasive fog of unease that connects and taints everyone, even Portia, who lives like a princess in a tower on her late father’s estate.
Brooding music, composed by Dan Moses Schreier, wraps this world in a restless melancholy. The anxiety expressed in the opening scene by Antonio (a quietly masochistic Byron Jennings) — the play’s title character, whose fortunes are “all at sea,” in mercantile ships — infuses even the jolliest, funniest moments of this “Merchant.” The production insists, subliminally but undeniably, that a happiness based on money borrowed, lent and spent is destined to be provisional. (Not that contemporary Americans would know anything about that.)
More than in any “Merchant” I have seen, we are kept conscious of how money defines and pollutes every relationship. That includes the friendship between the handsome young Bassanio (David Harbour) and his doting mentor Antonio, whose pledge to back up a loan to his friend by Shylock (who demands his fabled “a pound of flesh” should the debt not be honored) is what pushes the play toward tragedy.
The ostensibly sunnier romances in the play are similarly cast in shadow. When Portia thinks she has found the love she has longed for in Bassanio — the one suitor who passes the test dictated by her father’s will — her happiness is edged in apprehension. And we see different mirrors of love in perilous balance in the courtships of Nerissa (Marsha Stephanie Blake), Portia’s lady in waiting, by Bassanio’s best friend, Gratiano (Jesse L. Martin), and, more pointedly, of Jessica (Heather Lind), Shylock’s daughter, by the dandyish Lorenzo (Seth Numrich).
Shylock might be speaking for everyone when he says to his servant Launcelot Gobbo (Christopher Fitzgerald), “There is some ill a-brewing towards my rest, for I did dream of moneybags tonight.”
Those words are spoken shortly before Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, taking a chunk of Dad’s fortune and leaving Shylock in a confused but torrential state of mourning. Is it the loss of his daughter or his ducats that make him grieve so? This production suggests that such a blurring of cents and sentiment is hardly unique to Shylock.
Taking on one of the juiciest and most unsavory roles in the canon, Mr. Pacino avoids the classic characterizations of Shylock as either devil or martyr. His interpretation, which has only deepened and sharpened since the summer, starts with the ritualistic, tight-smiling manner that Shylock adopts for business dealings. But we’re always conscious (this is Al Pacino, after all) of the turmoil beneath the mannerisms. Shylock has spent his life cataloging sneers of contempt and slurs against Jews; that he will explode is beyond doubt.
For once the fierceness of this Shylock is matched, and complemented, by that of Portia. Fierce is not a word you associate with the mistress of Belmont, who is usually described as witty and winsome and wise. But Ms. Rabe — the daughter of the wonderful actress Jill Clayburgh, who died this month, and the playwright David Rabe — locates a troubled intensity and impetuosity in Portia. And the tragedy of Shylock’s ultimate humiliation, which she brings about, is echoed by her own dismayed discovery of the world that she must now live in.
Portia has led a cloistered life, and within its confines she has practiced her brittle intelligence on parlor-game conversation (which Ms. Rabe does most stylishly), while longing for a pure, delivering love. When she finds that purity is impossible in shameful, shallow Venice, the realization hits her like a body blow.
This “Merchant” ends not in the usual Arcadian bliss of lovers reunited, but with the stinging sense that to love in Venice is to lose. A sour conclusion, perhaps, but as rendered with the passion, expertise and uncommon intelligence that saturate this production, the aftertaste is thrillingly sweet.
When I reviewed the Public Theater's Central Park production of "The Merchant of Venice" back in June, I said that it might well end up on Broadway, and that it deserved to. This has now happened, and the main reason for the transfer is, needless to say, the presence of Al Pacino in the cast. Even so, what was true six months ago is true today: Mr. Pacino is a galvanic Shylock, but this "Merchant" would be more than good enough to play on Broadway no matter who was in the title role.
The best news is that Daniel Sullivan and Mark Wendland, the director and set designer, have managed to take a site-specific outdoor production and move it to the proscenium stage of the Broadhurst Theatre without any loss of theatrical potency. If anything, the show is more tightly focused in its smaller indoor home.
Shakespeare on Broadway has tended in recent seasons to be spotty, usually because of the stunt casting that makes such productions as Jude Law's "Hamlet" financially feasible. Fortunately Mr. Pacino's performance, in which he plays Shylock as an old-fashioned "stage Jew" driven to the edge of madness by his lust for revenge, is no stunt. He is a veteran stage actor who knows how to nail every line to the auditorium's back wall, and even if you think he's flirting with caricature—which he is—you'll find the results enthralling. I don't know whether Mr. Pacino has toughened up his interpretation since I last saw it or whether I've gotten onto his wavelength, but I found him entirely believable this time. The look of demented ecstasy on his face as he takes knife in hand to hack a pound of flesh out of the chest of Antonio (Byron Jennings) is the stuff bad dreams are made on.
The point of this "Merchant," however, is that Mr. Pacino's Shylock, far from being a flashy star turn, is integral to a reading of the play that seeks to solve the "problem" of its anti-Semitism. Even though Shakespeare gives him a fair chance to state his case, Shylock is still the villain of the piece, a hard-hearted "currish Jew" who gets what's coming to him. How, then, to put the audience on his side without doing violence to the spirit of the play?
Mr. Sullivan's solution is to set "The Merchant of Venice" in a brokerage house in Edwardian London, where it would have been taken for granted that rich Jews were richly deserving of Christian contempt. This directorial decision shifts much (if not all) of the blame for Shylock's villainy onto the shoulders of his genteel tormentors, and Mr. Sullivan has added two other touches that shift still more of it. In addition to inserting a hair-raising pantomime scene in which Shylock is baptized by force, he stages the end of the play in such a way as to suggest that Jessica (Heather Lind), Shylock's faithless daughter, is wracked with guilt for having betrayed her father.
I must point out, however, that what Mr. Sullivan has done all but turns on its head the plain meaning of the text of "The Merchant of Venice." For my part, I prefer to see the play directed in an unsparingly harsh manner that doesn't paper over its ugliness, the way that Barbara Gaines staged it for Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2005. But Mr. Sullivan's softer-edged interpretation works on its own terms, and no matter how you think "The Merchant of Venice" ought to be done, this version will sweep you along with such hell-bent momentum that you'll forget there was an intermission.
Most of the principal players from the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production have moved to Broadway with Mr. Pacino, including Mr. Jennings, Ms. Lind, and the luminous Lily Rabe as Portia, and their acting is as impressive now as it was in June (though I still think Ms. Lind is a little bit too nice). Mr. Wendland's set, a sinister-looking network of metal fences and scaffolds mounted on tracks that ring the cast like the walls of a circular prison, is just as effective. Would that the cheap seats were a whole lot cheaper, but don't begrudge Mr. Pacino his bigname salary. He's earning every cent of his fee—and then some. You'll never see a more exciting "Merchant of Venice," or a more thought-provoking one.