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The Beard of Avon

Whatever has kept this show from Broadway? Amy Freed's sparkling academic comedy about the "true" authorship of Shakespeare's literary canon is highbrow art served up as lowdown fun. Exuberant cast of pros (a host of them veterans of more ponderous Shakespearean stagings) cuts loose and mock all they hold dear.

Whatever has kept this show from Broadway? Cast size? Literary subject matter? Nobody minding the store? It couldn’t have been a matter of aesthetics. Amy Freed’s sparkling academic comedy about the “true” authorship of Shakespeare’s literary canon is highbrow art served up as lowdown fun. Show has been kicking around since its commissioned inception at South Coast Rep and subsequent regional productions. But the witty material feels hot off the griddle in Doug Hughes’ antic production, which allows an exuberant cast of pros (a host of them veterans of more ponderous Shakespearean stagings) to cut loose and mock all they hold dear.

To get the academic particulars out of the way: Scholars have long disputed the authorship of Shakespeare’s body of work. While some are content to assign to lesser authors such potboilers as “Titus Andronicus” (famously characterized by T.S. Eliot as “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”), others among the literati insist on attributing the entire canon to another hand. Christopher Marlowe was a popular candidate for a while, as was Sir Francis Bacon. In recent years, the camp followers of Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and a merry fellow by all accounts, felt they had made an incontrovertible case for their boy. Needless to say, the battle rages on.

Freed’s inspired contribution to this delicious controversy is that Shakespeare, or “Will Shakspere,” was a stagestruck country bumpkin who made a convenient beard for the true author(s) of the plays — De Vere, primarily, but a passel of other scribblers as well. In one hilarious scene, even Queen Elizabeth (an imperious, acid-tongued, pint-sized crone in Mary Louise Wilson’s feisty perf) gets into the act by demanding the Shakspere imprimatur on her own manuscript of “The Taming of a Shrew.” And doesn’t she cackle with a true playwright’s self-besotted delight during a private performance!

At first, Will goes along with the subterfuge, seduced by the glamour of the London stage scene and the chance to chase pretty boys. But as he becomes more adept at his craft, to the point where he actively collaborates on De Vere’s slipshod scripts, he balks at being denied his due. “I see too late — and what I see I hate — my name’s become a brand!” he whines, after De Vere presents him with his rough draft of “Timon of Athens” with demands for a quick polish. (“Timon needs something — give him a speech, will you?”)

They may not be Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, but Mark Harelik (De Vere) and Tim Blake Nelson (Will) really go to town on Freed’s comic version of a perfectly matched writing team — the idea man and the drone. (“I see a hunchback,” De Vere says, airily handing off his idea for “Richard III” to Will. “You fill it in.”) Harelik, a tall man, is every inch the dashing Elizabethan matinee idol, the very personification of the Earl of Oxford as a “murdering, pederastic, bad-boy motorcycle queen” — as Freed has described that historical figure in interviews. His mastery of flamboyant poses also makes him the ideal clotheshorse for Catherine Zuber’s period costumes, with their sumptuous fabrics and quirky details.

Nelson’s Will has all the insecurities, as well as the hunched-over physique, of the neurotic playwright who doubts his talent and worries a lot about his manhood and his hairline. But he also has a true sweetness that puts the audience on his side when he rebels against his anonymity and demands acknowledgement of his authorship of, well, the sonnets at least.

The funny thing is, Freed’s satiric view of Will as a dramaturgical drudge for his social betters is well based in reality, because one of the arguments scholars advance for disallowing Shakespeare’s authorship is that he was too unlettered, too low-class, too nice to be a writer.

Although the bards of Stratford and Oxford are the centerpieces of this endearing entertainment, they are hardly the only players on stage — in Neil Patel’s expansive design, a rough-hewn construction of raw beams and platformed side stages take the action from country to city with the deft flick of a curtain. Kate Jennings Grant revels in her role of Anne Hathaway, who travels to London in search of her wayward husband, only to be waylaid by the sexually voracious De Vere, and Jeff Whitty strikes winsomely girlish poses as Henry Wriothesley, “the beautiful and effeminate Third Earl of Southampton” who is De Vere’s main squeeze.

But the true joy of this lusty production are the showbiz one-liners delivered in faux-Elizabethan idiom and distributed among the many veteran actors doubling and tripling in character parts — Tom Lacy, David Schramm and Alan Mandell among their sterling number — who simultaneously salute and send up their profession in the hammy style of thespians down through the ages.

Freed (a 1999 Pulitzer Prize nominee for “Freedomland”) writes choice throwaways for these warhorses to hurl at one another in the heat of theatrical battle. Take thy pick among such gems as: “Call you this direction?” “Thou hast no gift for plot.” “I am sick to death of tiny parts!” “Assaulteth me with dramaturgy?” And watch for the best one — “Whatever worketh” — to show up on a T-shirt.

The Beard of Avon

New York Theater Workshop; 188 seats; $60

  • Production: A New York Theater Workshop presentation of a comedy in two acts by Amy Freed. Directed by Doug Hughes.
  • Crew: Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Michael Chybowski; music and sound, David Van Tieghem; production stage manager, Judith Schoenfeld. Opened Nov. 18, 2003; reviewed Nov. 15. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Anne Hathaway - Kate Jennings Grant Edward De Vere - Mark Harelik William Shakspere - Tim Blake Nelson John Heminge - David Schramm Queen Elizabeth - Mary Louise Wilson <b>With:</b> Timothy Doyle, James Gale, Tom Lacy, Alan Mandell, Justin Schultz, Jeff Whitty.
  • Music By: