The Merchant of Venice: Theater Review

A play that tends to chafe with modern audiences is transformed via this clear-headed reclamation into a haunting drama for our financially and morally complicated times.

Mark Wendland's main set for the riveting Public Theater production of "The Merchant of Venice" is an Edwardian stock market, with an abacus-like exchange board and a circular enclosure of iron bars that doubles as prison and tribunal. It's a swift evocation of a society shackled to Wall Street, in which lives hang on speculative lending and crippling debt.

That those contemporary connections are made in a single visual statement is typical of the clarity of director Daniel Sullivan's vision for Shakespeare's play.

Transferred to Broadway after becoming the hot ticket of the summer in Central Park, the production is anchored by performances of penetrating intelligence from Al Pacino and Lily Rabe. As the Jewish moneylender Shylock and heiress Portia, respectively, they are the most lucid observers of a mercenary world.

But it's the equilibrium brought to every aspect of this staging that distinguishes it, from the light touch of the comedy to the soaring yet ambivalent romance to the steadily lengthening shadow of melancholy that leaves not even the happier outcomes untainted.

The play's squirm factor for audiences in the age of political correctness is the blunt anti-Semitism of Elizabethan Europe. This makes the racial stereotyping of Shylock and the scornful treatment of him tough to stomach.

Revisiting a role he played in Michael Radford's 2004 film version, Pacino gives as good as he gets. He refuses to soft-pedal the character's abrasiveness, adopting a weary self-righteousness as he defends his merciless decision to extract a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio (Byron Jennings) for a forfeited debt.

But there's a slow-burning pathos to Pacino's Shylock. His imperviousness to all entreaties for clemency is rooted in a lifetime of indignities absorbed like poison arrows – the inequities of his social position, the verbal and physical assaults, the material loss of theft and the betrayal of his daughter Jessica (Heather Lind), seduced away by the Christian Lorenzo (Seth Numrich). That Pacino conveys this by showing sneers first and scars second is what makes the performance so devastating.

The climate of harsh discrimination is evident throughout Sullivan's staging, as Orthodox Jews shuffle nervously among the Rialto's dapper Christian investors, looking on with apprehension as Shylock's contemptuous attitude drives the wedge between the two factions ever deeper.

In a bracing directorial flourish, Sullivan shows us Shylock's court-ordered conversion to Christianity as a shocking act of violation. This realigns the balance of the play and continues to reverberate through the romantic reconciliations that follow. Its dramatic effect heightened by Dan Moses Schreier's rich underscoring and Kenneth Posner's exquisite lighting, the wordless scene resonates in a world still torn by interfaith intolerance.

Directors who explore the darker corners of Shakespeare's comedies often venture too far into gloom, but Sullivan's calibration of tone here is impeccable.

The contest hatched by Portia's deceased father for her suitors provides hilarious scenes with the failed bids of princes from Morocco (Isaiah Johnson) and Arragon (Charles Kimbrough). But these clueless peacocks also serve to establish that Portia is nobody's fool.

Showing a trouper's mettle, Rabe returned to the production just days after the death of her mother, Jill Clayburgh. Having previously impressed in more fragile, ethereal roles, her dynamic performance here is spellbinding.

In her flinty directness, her bearing and the slightly nasal superiority of her delivery, her incandescent Portia appears modeled on the young Katharine Hepburn. The trial scene, with the disguised Portia calling the shots, has rarely seemed so suspenseful, yet she finds more unease than triumph in her success. And having given her heart to Bassanio (David Harbour), she is clearly aware of the intellectual disparity between them.

The sense of women who are smarter and more attuned to the world's realities than their men reverberates in the relationship of Jessica and handsome lightweight Lorenzo, and of Portia's lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Marsha Stephanie Blake) with reformed playboy Gratiano (a wily Jesse L. Martin).

Among newcomers to the production, Harbour puts a less boyish stamp on Bassanio that makes his lovestruck silliness funnier and his emotional attachment to Jennings' devoted Antonio more touching. Blake doesn't match the authority of her predecessor Marianne Jean-Baptiste, making her Nerissa more girlfriend than governess, but that subtle shift works. And Christopher Fitzgerald spins comic gold out of Shylock's pragmatic servant.

With deepened characterizations from the park holdovers and efficient design tweaks to move the staging indoors, this is an uncommonly satisfying production of one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays.

Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 9)

Cast: Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, David Harbour, Byron Jennings, Jesse L. Martin, Gerry Bamman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Christopher Fitzgerald, Peter Francis James, Isaiah Johnson, Charles Kimbrough, Heather Lind, Seth Numrich, Matthew Rauch, Richard Topol
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Music: Dan Moses Schreier
Presented by: The Public Theater; Jeffrey Richards; Jerry Frankel; Debbie Bisno and Eva Price; Amy Nederlander and Jonathan First; Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley; Universal Pictures Stage Prods.; Merritt Forrest Baer; The Araca Group; Broadway Across America; Joseph and Matthew Deitch; JK Prods.; Terry Allen Kramer; Jay and Cindy Gutterman/Cathy Chernoff; Mallory Factor/Cheryl Lachowicz; Joey Parnes; Shubert Organization