'Much Ado About Nothing': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater in "Much Ado About Nothing"
The combative lovebirds are not ideally paired in this pretty but unmemorable production.

Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater play the marriage-phobic Beatrice and Benedick in director Jack O'Brien's al fresco staging of one of Shakespeare's most popular romantic comedies.

NEW YORK – In a fussy bit of business employed multiple times in the Shakespeare in the Park summer staging of Much Ado About Nothing, a garden trellis wall flanking designer John Lee Beatty's gorgeous 19th century Sicilian villa slides away as if by magic, with music providing the force that muscle cannot. This is perplexing given that unlike, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream, this play's turmoil of the heart is the result purely of foolish human behavior, and not of some mysterious enchantment. However, magic is essentially missing from the chemistry of Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater as Beatrice and Benedick, the verbal sparring partners whose "skirmish of wit" should ignite the romantic comedy.

Which is not to say that having mismatched characterizations in the central reluctant romance completely dampens one of Shakespeare's most enjoyable works. In fact, during a drizzly first press performance that had to be paused at one point near the conclusion when the rain grew too heavy, the wetter the lead actors became the more they appeared to loosen up and enjoy one another's company.

Both Rabe (American Horror Story) and Linklater (The Newsroom, The New Adventures of Old Christine) have distinguished recent histories with Shakespeare in the Park. Rabe even opted out of a role in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 to do this production. She has brought feisty intelligence, coltish grace and stirring compassion to Rosalind in As You Like It and Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Linklater has lent his brilliant command of language and limber physicality to a number of productions, notably last year's The Comedy of Errors opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson. But somehow the spark that is quintessential to any pairing of Beatrice and Benedick remains stubbornly elusive for much of their stage time.

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That's at least partly the fault of director Jack O'Brien, a lauded Shakespeare veteran in his first Central Park outing. During the crucial early establishing scenes, Linklater's Benedick comes off as a silly lightweight, his preference for military life over female companionship signaled by his bushy beard. Rabe's acidic Beatrice, by contrast, is brittle and shrill. There's no sexual heat behind their verbal fireworks, so no compelling reason for an audience to invest in their inevitable discovery that animosity is akin to amorousness. (Gossip pages have reported that the actors are dating, indicating that their offstage romance perhaps burns brighter.)

Both performances improve immeasurably when, after being tricked by meddlesome friends into revealing that the professed scorn they show for one another is merely a mask for true passion, they are confronted with their own shocking susceptibility to love. But the seeds have not been planted to make this a transporting romance. O'Brien's choice to play many scenes in an accelerated patter right out of Neapolitan opera buffa feels somewhat strained, and it undermines the intelligence of two of the smartest hindered lovers in the Shakespearean comedy canon.

As Claudio and Hero, the figures entwined in the play's parallel love story that blooms, wilts tragically and then comes joyously back to life, Jack Cutmore-Scott and Ismenia Mendes are dewy and youthful but not terribly interesting. However, Mendes becomes quite moving when the devious plot kicks in to discredit her virtue and shame her in front of both her betrothed and her father, Leonato (John Glover), the Governor of Messina. Rabe also shows her skill here at finding the fire in Shakespeare's women when Beatrice seethes over the offenses committed against her wronged kinswoman.

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But the most formidable power in those scenes comes from Glover in a mercurial display of misdirected rage, lacerating sorrow and anger renewed, this time at the right target. His wily performance, and that of Brian Stokes Mitchell, whose rich baritone gives Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, a swaggering authority, are the production's highlights.

Among the fine work in smaller roles, John Pankow's playful comic timing animates the buffoonish constable who unwittingly uncovers the treachery. And both Zoe Winters as Hero's lady-in-waiting and Eric Sheffer Stevens as the remorseful servant enlisted to besmirch that good woman have a strong stage presence. But it's a disappointment that Game of Thrones badass Pedro Pascal has so little fun with the villainy of Don John, Pedro's resentful illegitimate brother.

O'Brien's production is lucid and accessible, and while it doesn't rank with the best of the recent Shakespeare comedies in the Park — the 2009 Twelfth Night with Anne Hathaway and As You Like It with Rabe in 2012 — its moments of pathos have real poignancy.

Even in a mixed-bag production, the pleasures of this 52-year New York summer tradition are undeniable. Those are enhanced by sweet music from David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), much of it sung by Steel Burkhardt. And Beatty's set is a feast for the eyes. His shuttered doors on the villa allow us to glimpse silhouettes of the observers within as action unfolds on the marble terrace or in the pretty garden that surrounds it. The downstage vegetable patch has ripe tomatoes, rows of basil and carrots to be dug up, while grapevines and a fruit-laden orange tree provide strategic hiding places for spying scenes. Best of all, a strand of palm trees behind the garden wall elegantly frames Belvedere Castle in the background, furthering the illusion of being in another time and place.

Cast: Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, John Glover, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Ismenia Mendes, Pedro Pascal, John Pankow, Matt Bittner, Alex Breaux, Steel Burkhardt, Carisa Cotera, Isabella Curti, Austin Durant, Paco Lozano, David Manis, Kathryn Meisle, Matthew Russell, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Zoe Winters

Director: Jack O'Brien

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Set designer: John Lee Beatty

Costume designer: Jane Greenwood

Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter

Music: David Yazbek

Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners

Movement: Danny Mefford

Presented by The Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park