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Overtime

"Overtime" is appalling, and really, I mean that in the nicest way. Three parts sophomore jokefest and two parts serious meditation on multiculturalism, A.R. Gurney's modern-day sequel to "The Merchant of Venice" revels in terrible puns and, as always with this writer, an underlying yearning for order in a world that stubbornly refuses to comply.

“Overtime” is appalling, and really, I mean that in the nicest way. Three parts sophomore jokefest and two parts serious meditation on multiculturalism, A.R. Gurney’s modern-day sequel to “The Merchant of Venice” revels in guilty laughs, terrible puns and, as always with this writer, an underlying yearning for order in a world that stubbornly refuses to comply.

So here is Portia (Joan McMurtrey) throwing “a little post-trial celebration” at Belmont, which seems about as appealing as the one O.J. had; there’s food by Ciprian and music courtesy of Peter Duchin, despite the warning from her stolid accountant, Salerio (the brilliantly deadpan Robert Stanton), that those Pullman Corp. and Studebaker stocks have now left her on the brink of bankruptcy.

Portia’s new husband, Bassanio (Jere Shea) turns out to be a hunky Irish Adonis given to posing when he’s not shooting hoops with Lorenzo (Willis Sparks) , who worries that he’s not Jewish enough for his new wife, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Jill Tasker), who — need I say it? — wears too much makeup and has too much jewelry hanging from all of the nice places jewelry can hang from these days.

Though Lorenzo has gone so far as to have himself circumcised, he feels he’ll “never be good enough to be Jewish,” and when he confides to Bassanio that all thishas convinced him he’s anti-Semitic, Bassanio slugs him. “Now that I’ve seen ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” Bassanio says, he doesn’t even want to be in the same room with such prejudice.

Meanwhile, Gratiano (Michael Potts) and Nerissa (Marissa Chibas) find themselves getting in touch with their roots — his, black; hers, Hispanic — which wrecks their liaison but sets the stage for Nerissa’s fling with … well, you get the picture.

Portia has also invited Shylock (Nicholas Kepros) to the party, and he arrives at the close of the first act, just as nearly everyone else has spun out into (offstage) chaos. Dressed in a discreet tux, Shylock is the calm, sure soul of reason and reconciliation, and though stripped of his wealth at that nasty trial, one call to a cousin in Krakow has enabled him to purchase Belmont for Jessica.

When Portia insists she’s just a hollow, shallow nillynoodle, Shylock earnestly compares her to “Homer’s Penelope, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Kitty Carlisle Hart”– she’s the 5% nylon that keeps the social fabric intact.

A little of this goes a long way; Gurney got more mileage out of a talking dog in last year’s sly, lovely “Sylvia” than he gets here with infinitely more material. There’s an exchange between Shylock and Gratiano regarding the reasons blacks hate Jews, and if the argument is familiar, it is nevertheless drawn with considerable deftness.

For a comedy driven by hostility, “Overtime” is a lot more palatable than, say, Woody Allen’s “Central Park West.” Still, the play runs out of steam, and by the very foolish end, it’s gasping desperately for ideas. That’s the problem with stereotypes, even intentionally drawn stereotypes. They can take you only so far.

You almost wouldn’t know there’s trouble from Nicholas Martin’s staging. Having directed “Full Gallop,” one of the season’s best solo shows, Martin here proves he’s equally adept with an ensemble of terrific actors; I single out Kepros because it’s so nice to see this fine actor actually have a role with some meat on it — one, moreover, that doesn’t require him to spend two hours looking as if he’s just eaten a bad shrimp. And John Lee Beatty has turned Manhattan Theater Club’s tiny second stage into a lovely, open hillside, airily lit by Brian MacDevitt. Good things should grow there.

Overtime

City Center/Stage II, New York City; 150 seats; $30 top

  • Production: A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in two acts by A.R. Gurney; director, Nicholas Martin.
  • Crew: Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Aural Fixation. Artistic director, Lynne Meadow; executive producer, Barry Grove. Opened, reviewed March 5, 1996. Running time: 1 hour, 55 min.
  • Cast: <B>Cast:</B> Joan McMurtrey (Portia), Rocco Sisto (Antonio), Jere Shea (Bassanio), Michael Potts (Gratiano), Marissa Chibas (Nerissa), Jill Tasker (Jessica), Willis Sparks (Lorenzo), Robert Stanton (Salerio), Nicholas Kepros (Shylock).