An allegiance to truth in advertising might necessitate a few words being inserted into the title of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park presentation from the Public Theater. Call this one “Way Too Much Ado About Nothing.” Director David Esbjornson has updated the comedy of love and deception to the early 20th century and drenched it in Italian local color — snatches of arias and songs, tables teeming with fresh tomatoes and bottles of wine — but the decorative trimmings only serve to draw out the evening to interminable length. A handful of bright, broad performances in the central roles invite little emotional investment in the dueling love stories at the center of the plot.
The cast is a friendly, if peculiarly matched, assortment of names familiar to anyone currently or recently possessed of a TV set. Kristen Johnston, once a sitcom alien, lends her oversized presence to the role of Beatrice, the tart-tongued lass who secretly hankers for Benedick, whom she professes to disdain. “NYPD Blue’s” Jimmy Smits, who is, like Johnston, a returning visitor to Shakespeare in the Park, is slick, smooth and flamboyant as the object of Beatrice’s confused affections.
Sam Waterston, himself a memorable Benedick in the Public’s enchanting 1972 production of “Much Ado,” escapes his DA duds after a century on “Law & Order” to return to the stage as a blustery Leonato, the governor of Messina and father to the comely Hero. She is played by Waterston’s own daughter, the comely Elisabeth Waterston. And in the small role of Leonato’s brother Antonio, who’s that but Dominic Chianese — the wily Junior Soprano in the flesh!
It would be nice to report that the various talents of these hard-working tube veterans have beautifully meshed to serve Shakespeare’s merry tale of amorous adventures misconstrued and then righted. But for the most part, the evening’s perfs are competent at best, and almost uniformly one-dimensional.
The engine that should drive the play — the teasing, touching tension between Beatrice and Benedick, who are forced ultimately to confront the truth of their own affections when they must stand up for the integrity of Hero’s — tends to hum along in low gear.
Both Johnston and, more surprisingly, Smits are skilled comedians who know how to manipulate Shakespeare’s language to work the audience into a happy lather. They’re first-rate physical comedians, too: The famous scenes in which B&B are separately duped into believing a sworn enemy is in fact a secret admirer are splendidly realized here, with Smits tumbling down a well in his slapstick efforts to avoid detection, and Johnston making like an Amazonian Lucy Ricardo in a grape-stomping sequence.
But the trick to these roles is making the audience feel the affection beneath the bantering wordplay from the start. We must feel the submerged yearning in their barbed exchanges, recognize the perfect rightness of their union and wait anxiously for it to be fulfilled.
But Smits and Johnston, while they have fine moments in both abrasive and affectionate mode, can never really unite the two. As a result, they overstate the animosity, exchanging insults like prizefighters’ punches. When Beatrice and Benedick switch to earnest confessions of affection, the audience continues to laugh uproariously — these two seem just as ludicrous in love as in war; they’re not to be taken seriously.
In fact, nothing much is to be taken seriously in this production, despite vague attempts to give context to Don John’s brooding misanthropy by suggesting he’s a budding anarchist in dirty trousers (the evening’s largely attractive costumes, including lovely lace dresses for the ladies, are by Jess Goldstein). This pseudopolitical posing is, in any case, undercut by the overly goofy performance of Christopher Evan Welch as Don John.
More appealingly, and appropriately, goofy is the goggle-eyed, tongue-twisted Dogberry of the estimable Brian Murray, who arrives at the top of the second act to provide a much-needed infusion of energy. (A small shout-out, too, to Jayne Houdyshell, late of the Public’s “Well,” who provides a warmly droll presence in the minuscule role of Ursula.)
It’s never easy to take seriously the series of contrivances that serve to unite, sunder and finally reunite Hero and her beloved Claudio (a handsome but bland Lorenzo Pisoni). Why exactly does Peter Francis James’ suavely spoken Don Pedro woo Hero on behalf of Claudio, anyway? And who would fall so foolishly for the ruse cooked up by the bitter Don John to slander Hero’s name?
There is too much time to ponder these and other questions as the evening coasts along at a languorous pace, with interludes of singing and dancing (peppy choreography by Jane Comfort) giving rise to the irksome reflection that the performers are having a livelier time than the audience.