Maybe “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was the first spec script on record: A sked to deliver for a state celebration a comedy about Falstaff in love, Shakespeare instead gave Elizabeth I a Falstaff of unbridled mendaciousness, greed and lechery. Indeed, “Merry Wives” is notable for its meanness of spirit — for a comedy — and, to give Shakespeare his due, for articulating the notion that when it comes to marriage, romantic love must prevail over economics. Of course, that part was all in the subplot. The rest — the predictable comeuppances, the cheery conclusion — were standard issue in the late 16th century.
The first of this summer’s two free Shakespeare in Central Park presentations marks the 25th in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare Marathon, though after seven years it has become more of an epic than a marathon. This production, staged by Daniel Sullivan (“The Sisters Rosensweig”), features Brian Murray as Falstaff, David Alan Grier as Master Ford and Andrea Martin as Mistress Quickly, and sets the play in “Windsor, Idaho” during the Gold Rush era.
This must be Sullivan’s own private Idaho; it surely wasn’t mine. John Lee Beatty’s elaborate Wild West setting and the honky-tonk brass choir that sets the mood at opening promise some deeper reason for updating these silly goings-on. But none emerges with anything like the gestalt thrill, say, of Peter Sellars’ stagings of Mozart. The setting just seems arbitrary.
The casting doesn’t work either. Margaret Whitton is a stolid scold as Mistress Page, Tonya Pinkins a kaffeeklatsching Mistress Ford. Grier has some nice moments as Master Ford, though in his guise as Mr. Brook he merely rehashes “In Living Color” clowning. Being neither funny nor quick here, Martin is wholly (and surprisingly) out of her league as Mistress Quickly.
Saddest of all is the spectacle of Murray, artificially rounded out and sneering his lines with oleaginous glee. This Falstaff, presented as a traveling stage raconteur, is sleaze without charm, chicanery without vivacity, bravado without vulnerability.
Nobody snaps “I’ll no pullet’s sperm in my brewage” (i.e., no egg in his ale) quite like Murray. Nevertheless, such rough, rewarding melodies are few and far between in this mirthless romp.