The comedy easily trumps the darkness in Mary Zimmerman’s production of Shakespeare’s dark comedy “Measure for Measure,” the first summer entry from the Public Theater at the Delacorte in Central Park. Zimmerman, whose inventive stage adaptations of various literary classics have not been seen much in New York, takes a sunny and lucid approach to the Bard’s “problem” play, seeming to find nothing particularly problematic about it.
The cast is handsome and generally able; the laughs peal brightly; the convoluted plot is communicated with impressive simplicity, economy and grace. Played on an airy set by Daniel Ostling that echoes Zimmerman’s streamlining approach to the play, this is indeed a crystal-clear production that will give pause to fans of the play who believe it to be anything but.
Joe Morton’s performance as Duke Vincentio is emblematic. The actor is gifted with a handsome, honey-dipped baritone and a comfortingly elucidating way with Shakespearean verse. He cuts a commanding figure and is every inch the earnest nobleman he appears to be as he hands over rule of Vienna to his underling Angelo, hoping to put to the test the morals of the man and the city.
As Morton’s Duke goes about his business steering the play’s rather gruesome plot toward a strenuously achieved happy ending, there are no suggestions that his motivations are anything but pure and rational, his means anything but noble. There is darkness and peculiarity in the Duke — as there is in every character in this play — but it’s largely ignored here (unless we are to take the bland suavity of the performance with an ironic wink, which I doubt).
Morton delivers the Duke’s most beautiful speech, his peroration on the desirability of death, prettily enough, but with little feeling to distinguish it from anything else in the role; his rich voiceover voice turns it into a nice little infomercial for mortality. The chill of its nihilism evaporates in the summer night.
There are two sides — at least — to every character in “Measure for Measure,” which is one of the reasons the play has an abiding fascination. But here we rarely get more than one. Sanaa Lathan is an astonishingly pretty Isabella and brings a bright, passionate conviction to her two major scenes — the battle with Angelo, who has condemned her brother Claudio to death and allows that he’ll rescind it if the virginal girl gives him her favors, and the scene that follows, in which Isabella is appalled when Claudio seems not entirely happy with the idea of going to his death to protect her honor.
Lathan’s innocent conviction is convincing — she almost keeps us from recoiling at her preference for her chastity over her brother’s life — and in the production’s face-value approach to the text, possibly the best and only choice for this difficult role. But it’s an anodyne performance that would benefit from some real psychological penetration.
As the play’s most consistently monstrous character, Angelo, Billy Crudup is surprisingly subdued. His stiff-necked moralist — in a clever touch, we mostly see him from the back until his true character is exposed — is overwhelmed by the sheer presence of Lathan’s Isabella, and Crudup makes the character’s inward recoiling at his awakened lust visible on his pinched face. The performance doesn’t bloom, however, and when Angelo’s ignominy is exposed in the play’s extended denouement, Crudup seems at a loss; he reverts to the dry bloodlessness of the first scenes. (His handling of the language is a bit too casual, as well.)
For a small but incisive illustration of the play’s deepest paradoxes, we must look to John Pankow’s thoroughly splendid Lucio. Labeled a “fantastic,” Lucio comes off here, as he often does, as the character who most consistently speaks sense — even when he’s spewing malicious invective. Although the coke-snorting is an unnecessary flourish, Pankow’s Lucio connects instantly and indelibly with a contemporary sensibility, both through Pankow’s deft handling of the language and the character’s postmodern cynicism.
The other comic roles are handled with a comparable dexterity. Christopher Evan Welch’s happily corrupt Pompey and Tom Aulino’s idiotically righteous Elbow are both zesty comic turns that earn their robust laughs, and Traber Burns shines briefly in the brilliantly funny scene in which his Barnardine blithely declines to be executed when he’s got a hangover, thank you. Herb Foster and Christopher Donahue deserve note for their thoughtful turns in small but sincere roles as Escalus and the Provost, respectively.
A riot of yellow chrysanthemums is splashed across the stage in the play’s attenuated last scene, in which the complacent Duke Vincentio exposes Angelo’s hypocrisy and concludes the play with a welter of weddings. Zimmerman’s production sees nature as a benevolent force that can heal the perversions of mankind (the caged trees of Ostling’s set are a potent symbol). What the production overlooks is that while the world may be a lovely place, it is tended by man, a gardener of dubious proclivities who measures out vengeance and lust as liberally as he does love and mercy.