The Comedy of Errors: Theater Review

Comedy of Errors Theater Jesse Tyler Ferguson - H 2013

Comedy of Errors Theater Jesse Tyler Ferguson - H 2013

An often tiresome play gets an engaging jumpstart from master Shakespeare director Daniel Sullivan and a first-rate cast.

Audiences who know Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater only from "Modern Family" or "The New Adventures of Old Christine" will be impressed by their Shakespearean smarts.

NEW YORK – Even flagrant liars who claim never to be bored by Shakespeare generally concede that The Comedy of Errors can be a chore. An early entry in which thematic mainstays of the playwright’s work are given unnuanced treatment, its broad knockabout humor frequently wears thin. But in the hands of Daniel Sullivan, the most consistent of the Public Theater’s regular Shakespeare in the Park directors, and a resourceful cast captained by the brilliantly matched clowns Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater – each doing double-duty as the play’s two sets of twins – this accelerated update is an ideal summer night’s entertainment.

Clocking in at a breezy 90 intermission-less minutes that include a jazzy swing-dancing pre-show and swift choreographed scene changes, the production is presented as a gangster comedy of mistaken identity, set in the late 1930s in upstate New York.

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Sullivan literally unpacks a fun bag of tricks from the outset by having Syracuse merchant Egeon (Jonathan Hadary) pull props from a suitcase as he relates his sad tale to the Duke (Skipp Sudduth). Playing the authority figure as a Mob don in Al Capone-style pinstripes, Sudduth’s wise-guy delivery makes droll work of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Egeon has risked venturing to the hostile territory of Ephesus in search of his son Antipholus (Linklater), who took off seven years earlier with his servant Dromio (Ferguson) to track down his lost sibling.

To complicate matters, both Antipholus and Dromio were separated during a shipwreck as infants from identically named (and costumed) twin brothers. They blow into Ephesus on an Adirondack Trailways bus, and guess where their doppelgangers now reside?

Borrowing from Plautus’ Menaechmi, the play has been reworked countless times – musically as Rodgers & Hart’s The Boys From Syracuse and the hip-hop Bomb-itty of Errors; as a vaudevillian circus act by The Flying Karamazov Brothers in the 1980s; and as the 1988 Bette Midler-Lily Tomlin screen vehicle Big Business, among notable incarnations. Finding fresh ways to play the hoary farce is a challenge, but the casting here is a major help.

Having four actors in the main roles often makes it hard to swallow that nobody onstage can spot the glaring differences between the visiting Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio – who know no one, yet everyone seems to know them – and their local Ephesus counterparts. Handing two roles apiece to Ferguson and Linklater allows the actors to exercise formidable Shakespearean comedy chops that will be a revelation to audiences familiar only with their TV work on Modern Family and The New Adventures of Old Christine, respectively. The subtle distinctions they bring to their characterizations paradoxically assist in keeping tabs on who’s who while making the mix-ups credible for the play’s other figures.

Perhaps the defining traits of each actor here are Ferguson’s sense of mischief and Linklater’s restraint. Both Dromios owe a debt to Stan Laurel, but the Syracuse transplant is a prancing jester while his Ephesus lookalike is a more self-dramatizing, put-upon type, providing some sobering ballast to his married playboy master. Antipholus of Syracuse, by contrast, is single and more inclined toward introspection. The tightly synched chemistry between Ferguson’s daffy physical comedy skills and Linklater’s verbal dexterity makes them a marvelous team.

Their interaction is particularly delightful with Antipholous of Ephesus’ jealous wife Adriana (Emily Bergl), who interprets the evasiveness of her husband’s double as a sure sign that’s he’s philandering. Likewise Adriana’s unwed sister Luciana (Heidi Schreck), torn between loyalty to her sis and the passionate romantic declarations of the man she believes is her brother-in-law. Bergl is funniest when she winds herself up into a shrewish rage, threatening retaliatory adultery with some tango moves before collapsing into weeping supplication.

Without exception, this is a beautifully spoken production, with the lucidity and accessibility that Shakespeare in the Park demands. In addition to the principals, Hadary and Sudduth score in tasty secondary roles, the latter hilariously doubling as Dromius of Ephesus’ zaftig kitchen maid fiancée. De’Adre Aziza smolders as a courtesan who delivers the bluesiest, sexiest “Hey nonny nonny” number ever heard; Robert Creighton is amusing as a diminutive jeweler whose gold gets delivered to the wrong Antipholous; and Becky Ann Baker infuses fresh spark into the late action as a tough-talking Abbess flanked by pistol-packing nuns.

The Comedy of Errors is never going to yield the beguiling romantic rewards of Twelfth Night or the dark complexities of The Merchant of Venice, to name two recent Sullivan successes on the Delacorte stage. But with this cast of pros unleashed on John Lee Beatty’s charmingly old-fashioned theatrical set in Toni-Leslie James’ snazzy costumes, it’s a fine way to spend an evening in Central Park.

Venue: Delacorte Theater, New York (runs through June 30)

Cast: Hamish Linklater, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Emily Bergl, Heidi Schreck, Jonathan Hadary, Skipp Sudduth, De’Adre Aziza, Becky Ann Baker, Brian Langlitz, Keith Eric Chappelle, Robert Creighton, Tyler Caffall, Reed Campbell, Natalie Woolams-Torres, J. Clint Allen, Reggie Gowland, Rachel McMullin, Adrienne Weidert, Jessica Wu

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Director: Daniel Sullivan

Set designer: John Lee Beatty

Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James

Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter

Music: Greg Pliska

Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners

Choreographer: Mimi Lieber

Presented by the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park