Presenting just one production in Central Park this summer, the Public Theater chose a perennial crowdpleaser from Shakespeare, and Brian Kulick’s production serves it forth in perennially crowdpleasing style. Once again the chronically soused Sir Toby Belch and his machinations against the censorious Malvolio merrily shipwreck the tale of siblings reunited and bewitched lovers that is ostensibly — very ostensibly, in this case — the comedy’s primary plot.
Never mind those painful lessons about the confounding nature of romantic attraction, those lyrical musings on the variable constancy of both male and female hearts, those mournful, even gloomy songs. Who needs such substance when the stylish clowning of Oliver Platt’s Toby Belch and Michael Stuhlbarg as his witless aide de camp Sir Andrew Aguecheek are center stage? And, actually, they always seem to be front and center at the Delacorte Theater, notwithstanding the usual contingent of celebrities (“NYPD Blue’s” Jimmy Smits, teen movie name Julia Stiles, “Scrubs” star Zach Braff) dutifully going through the motions in less farcically inclined regions of Illyria.
Even Walt Spangler’s eye-catching set seems designed to earn an easy chuckle or two, as it does. An undulating expanse of wood washed in aquamarine veneer, it looks like a skateboarder’s theme park, and is sometimes treated as such, with characters descending to center stage, as from a water slide, from a raised corner in the rear.
The first to thus swoop into view is Stiles, the young star of such disparate pictures as “The Business of Strangers” and “Save the Last Dance,” making an eager but shaky Public Theater debut as Viola. Playing the shipwrecked lass who disguises herself as a boy and thereby causes serious heartburn to Duke Orsino (Smits), his uninterested beloved, Olivia (Kathryn Meisle), and herself, Stiles is often outmatched by the complexities of the language — and sometimes its simplicities, too. In her opening scene, observing that her brother Sebastian is in “Elysium,” Stiles’ petulant Viola sounds as if she’s referring to another homeroom, not a different plane of existence. Stiles has a lovely, open face, so it’s all the more disappointing when little registers on it at key moments, as when Viola first hears Antonio mistake her for the presumed-dead Sebastian.
That Stiles’ performance lacks much-needed charm and emotional texture isn’t necessarily — or at any rate exclusively — the fault of the actress. Kulick’s staging of the more broadly comic scenes is far more inventive and detailed than elsewhere, suggesting that the director was more interested, perhaps understandably, in winning laughs from 1,900 theatergoers a night than in unearthing the more subtle, often dark-timbred currents in the play. Perhaps because they have more stage experience — and because their roles are more smaller — Stiles’ co-stars in the play’s cat’s cradle of romantic confusion are not as unhappily exposed.
As the painfully smitten Orsino, Smits is a dashing figure, both in the velvet dressing gown of act one and the vaguely Prussian military uniform of act two (Miguel Angel Huidor’s largely pretty costumes meander rather oddly across a wide expanse of the 19th century — the massive hoop skirts of act one lose a lot of volume by act two). With an equally handsome stage voice, Smits knows how to shape the verse and certainly savors the language, but the performance, perhaps like the character, is mostly style.
Meisle, an experienced stage actress, probably gives the most rewarding and accomplished performance of the evening. Her Olivia is sexy and smart and witty, a forceful character whose fascination with the pallid Viola-as-Cesario is thus all the more implausible. Braff does well by the relatively small role of Sebastian, delivering the verse with intelligence and skill and bringing a small but authentic touch of real anguish to his character. It bears noting that Braff and Stiles, the look-alike twins, in fact look nothing like each other; saddling both with the same ghastly blond wig is not the happiest solution to the problem.
But maybe the wigs were intended to get a laugh. As noted, the production as a whole seems skewed toward hoarding as many guffaws as possible. These are most handily delivered by Platt and Stuhlbarg, a physically well-matched pair who, in their Victorian duds, amusingly resemble an engraving from the Illustrated Charles Dickens come to fragrant life. Platt’s capering Sir Toby, striking ludicrous poses and plotting his plots in an array of eccentric voices, has a lovable streak to match his nasty one. Stuhlbarg’s squeaky sidekick is riotously craven in the wonderfully staged duel scene.
Kristen Johnston is a fairly colorless Maria, Michael Potts is likewise bland but in handsome voice as the fool Feste (the pretty but incongruously contemporary guitar music is by Duncan Sheik), Kevin Isola playfully lightweight in the oddly extraneous role of Fabian. Christopher Lloyd’s Malvolio, the object of the others’ malicious manipulation, is so unremittingly grim that his antic preening in yellow stockings is less funny than gruesome; here, paradoxically, this production’s touch is not light enough, although negotiating the right degree of menace in this famously confounding character is never easy.
Indeed, even when it is most farcically assured, Kulick’s “Twelfth Night” is not exactly breezy. The scene in which Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian watch as Malvolio falls into their carefully laid trap is stretched to almost interminable length. Endless comic business attends the plotters’ attempts to hide themselves amid the bowers of roses that prettily bedeck the stage act two. The laughs come heartily, here and elsewhere, but at the expensive of the play’s momentum and its delicate mixture of manic and melancholy comedy. You might think of Mr. Bennett’s reaction to his daughter’s piano playing in “Pride and Prejudice”: “You have delighted us long enough.”