There's a constellation of shining stars in Lincoln Center Theater's ravishingly pretty, ravishingly funny production of "Twelfth Night," but it's not the one audiences may be expecting.

There’s a constellation of shining stars in Lincoln Center Theater’s ravishingly pretty, ravishingly funny production of “Twelfth Night,” but it’s not the one audiences may be expecting. While the trio of glamorous young romantic leads — Helen Hunt, Kyra Sedgwick and Paul Rudd — sometimes please the eye more than the ear, the play is lifted into a sphere of rare delight by the delicious comic interplay among stage veterans Brian Murray, Max Wright and Philip Bosco. This is an engagingly topsy-turvy “Twelfth Night,” appropriately enough for a play that trades in paradox and confusion. The primary story — concerning the complications of young lovers yearning for their unattainable other halves — tends to fade into the exotic, peacock-print wallpaper, while surprising magic is spun from the chicanery of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Malvolio.

Wonder-working set designer Bob Crowley’s vision of Shakespeare’s Illyria is a stupendously lovely, color-drenched waterworld suspended somewhere between colonial India and an imaginary Middle East. As the play opens, the audience is greeted by a louche tableau of opium-smoking androgynes lounging by a lily-covered pond, on a stage covered in printed cotton and lit by a multitude of hanging lamps. (Colored by Natasha Katz’s refulgent lighting in deep blues and reds, the set at first strongly recalls David Hockney’s design for “Turandot.”)

Although she arrives in another vision of heavenly beauty orchestrated by Crowley and director Nicholas Hytner, stepping mermaid-like in a green Grecian sheath (unlikely travel wear) from a haze of mist and water, Hunt proves a very down-to-earth Viola, who soon discards her gown for male duds in which she seems far more at home.

Hunt, the “Mad About You” star and recent Oscar winner, has a pleasingly humble, easygoing stage presence (despite a sometimes mannered use of hand gestures); her Viola is a practical girl who is amusingly unflappable in the face of Illyria’s delirium. And with several seasons of sitcomedy under her belt, it’s no surprise that Hunt has an unerring way of mining Shakespeare’s language for all its possibilities as mainstream comedy. But it must be added that she doesn’t communicate the poetry’s deeper beauties with equal artistry.

The Bard’s late comedy plays on the mysterious ways of love, but they’re more mysterious than usual here, since it seems unlikely that a Viola of such matter-of-factness would suddenly be smitten by love for Rudd’s self-dramatizing Orsino. You have to conclude that her attraction is physical — perhaps she has a thing for men in sarongs.

And indeed Rudd looks spectacular in Catherine Zuber’s gorgeous, androgynous harem wear, gold-embroidered purple silks and transparent cottons that fall just so to expose muscled chest or shapely shoulder. With his dark, slightly exotic beauty and leonine mane of curls, he’s like Hedy Lamarr with a goatee (or, in the gold boots, tight trousers and jewels of the finale, Adam Ant at the height of his ’80s pirate look).

Rudd’s acting, alas, is almost as florid as his attire. The duke Orsino’s self-pity at countess Olivia’s rebuffs should be amusing, not off-puttingly strident. Rudd seems ill at ease with the rhythms of the language, and he tries to make up for it by growling out his lines with a forced dramatic flourish; he’s doing an imitation (or is it a parody?) of a nobly spoken, fiery Shakespearean actor, and it falls flat. When Viola ends up with Rudd’s Orsino at the end, it’s almost a drag, as it were.

But Sedgwick’s Olivia is no better match for Viola, despite the comically elongated kiss they share that is one of Hytner’s several unforced allusions to the play’s homoerotic undertones. Like Rudd’s Orsino, Sedgwick’s Olivia is easy on the eyes but somewhat harder on the ear.

Olivia loses almost with the lifting of her veil the mien of mourning for a lost brother, which should linger as the emotional underpinnings of her sudden, heedless love for Viola (in disguise as Cesario, Orsino’s messenger). Spunky, histrionic and sexy in a hot pink midriff, Sedgwick’s Olivia is less a countess than a living Barbie doll who suddenly thinks she’s found her Ken, and her line readings tend toward the obvious and exaggerated.

But misgivings about the central love triangle are forgotten when the shenanigans of Murray’s Toby Belch and Wright’s Andrew Aguecheek stagger tipsily to center stage. These are actors of consummate technique, who make each comic exchange, whether ribald or abstruse, crystal clear and gut-wrenchingly funny.

And they do much more than that. In Wright’s hands, Aguecheek becomes a figure of affecting pathos. Equally wonderful in Lincoln Center Theater’s “Ivanov,” Wright is an actor with the rare ability to invest the most broad business with a human dimension, and his Aguecheek has a neurotic, gullible charm that gives this stock figure the heart that sometimes seems to be missing from the love-struck youngsters onstage.

Likewise Murray’s Toby Belch has all sorts of nuances. Whether doing a drunken double-take as he stumbles past Olivia’s black-clad companions or erupting with red-faced ire at Malvolio’s pretension, Murray is explosively funny. And as he listens to the fool Feste sing a love song, the sad, booze-sodden grimace on Toby’s face speaks far more eloquently of the sweet and sorrowful complications of life and love than the performances of the principals. It’s a moment all the more lovely for its unlikeliness, and is greatly enhanced, as indeed is the production throughout, by Jeanine Tesori’s culture-blending music and David Patrick Kelly’s hippie turn as Feste.

Bosco, of course, might have been born to play Malvolio, the pompous climber whose own misguided romantic ambitions echo the play’s central plot in hues both more vividly funny and more dark. When Malvolio is preparing to preen before his mistress Olivia, Bosco makes it seem like Malvolio will have an aneurysm before he manages to peel his lips back from his teeth in a smile. Hytner doesn’t attempt to lighten the grimness of Malvolio’s humiliation; he stages it in darkness, and Bosco communicates Malvolio’s misery with a force that touches our sympathies, as his plight should.

Hytner’s production closes with a shimmering, golden vision of unity for the quartet of lovers, as all the other players hustle to their more uncertain destinies in darkness. It’s an apt image: “Twelfth Night” is a strange, multihued comedy, with such a variety of dimensions and tones that it’s nigh impossible to honor them all equally. Hytner’s “Twelfth Night” may not touch the heart in ways we are accustomed to, but in the beauty of its physical execution and the tender attention brought to the play’s farcically comic corners, it finds intriguing new ones.

Twelfth Night

Vivian Beaumont Theater; 1,073 seats; $65 top

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation, in association with Lincoln Center Festival 98, of the play (performed in two acts) by William Shakespeare. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Creative

Sets, Bob Crowley; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Natasha Katz; music, Jeanine Tesori; sound, Scott Stauffer; dances, Joey McKneely; fight director, Steve Rankin; special effects, Gregory Meeh; stage manager, Erica Schwartz. Opened July 16, 1998. Reviewed July 12. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN.

Cast

Orsino - Paul Rudd Curio - Steven Ochoa Valentine - Daniel Sunjata Viola - Helen Hunt Sea captain - Paul O'Brien Olivia - Kyra Sedgwick Maria - Amy Hill Sir Toby Belch - Brian Murray Sir Andrew Aguecheek - Max Wright Feste - David Patrick Kelly Malvolio - Philip Bosco Sebastian - Rick Stear Antonio - Julio Monge Fabian - Skipp Sudduth Officers - Matte Osian, Adam Dannheisser, Kevin Daniels Priest - Jack Davidson
With: John Michael Gilbert, Kim Awon, Ryan Dunn, Robin Weigert.

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