Critics sold on ‘Merchant’

Reviews add to transfer potential

The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “The Merchant of Venice,” toplined by Al Pacino, has gotten a boost from a slew of strong reviews, adding to the show’s potential for a commercial transfer.

Delacorte Theater

The Verdict looks at critical reaction to key productions opening Off Broadway, regionally and abroad that appear likely candidates for further life on Broadway and/or elsewhere.

The groundwork already had been laid with the enhanced support given to the Public by Jeffrey Richards (“August: Osage County”), the producer who helped shepherd the Public’s summer staging of “Hair” to the Main Stem.

Favorable notices for the show, which opened Wednesday, praised not only Pacino’s performance as Shylock — which some critics liked better than his turn in the same role in a 2004 movie version of the play — but also director Daniel Sullivan’s production. Gotham stage regular Lily Rabe, who co-stars as Portia, also snagged her share of acclaim.

Richards said any talk of a transfer is premature, with no decision likely to be made for the next few weeks.

Here’s what the critics said:

  • Writing in the New York Times, Ben Brantley called the drama a “marvelous new production,” describing Pacino’s perf as “deeply intelligent and deeply irritating” in a manner that “serves Mr. Sullivan’s vision perfectly here.” He wrote, “That Shylock and the man playing him are not allowed to run away with this ‘Merchant’ — whose many virtues include a smashing break-out performance by Lily Rabe as Portia and what may be the finest supporting cast ever assembled for Shakespeare in the Park — is no mean accomplishment.”

  • In the Washington Post, Peter Marks gave Pacino’s Shylock high marks as a “fine performance” that “cuts deeper” than the thesp’s screen version of the role. He added that Sullivan’s production, described as “poignant,” gives a new take on Shylock, offering “the most compelling argument I’ve ever seen for him as neither hero nor villain, just a man driven to the edge by torturous grievance.”

  • Joe Dziemianowicz wrote in the New York Daily News that “the production is eloquently acted and crafted and balances the play’s light and dark tones.” He praised Pacino’s “complex and vivid” performance, but, like many critics, also saved some applause for fellow cast members including the “fascinating” Rabe.

  • Newsday’s Linda Winer argued that Sullivan’s take on “Merchant” honored the play “for both its gripping unpleasantness and its ripping entertainment value,” despite a few “comic missteps.” Shylock is rendered both “sympathetic and flawed” in Pacino’s “harrowing but unusually restrained” perf, and Rabe is “smashing.” The production’s final moments, she added, are “haunting.”

  • Writing for the Associated Press, Jocelyn Noveck had few words for Sullivan’s overall interpretation of the play, but she touted the perfs of several thesps, including the topliner: “The star, though, is unquestionably Pacino.” Unlike some critics, she went along with a silent interlude the creatives inserted into the show. “After all this time, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ never ceases to stun,” she wrote.

  • Landing on the less positive end of the spectrum, the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli wasn’t a fan of the spotlight Sullivan’s production turns on the lovers’ comic plotlines, an approach that steers the show “on a kinder, gentler path.” Sullivan, she argued, “sanded out the play’s more unsavory edges, but they’re precisely what give this controversial work its often cruel depths.” Besides, Pacino’s perf “isn’t quite as modestly poignant” as his turn in the “Merchant” movie. “This appealing production glitters, but without weight, it’s merely gold-plated,” she wrote.
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