There are good reasons “All’s Well That Ends Well” is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Besides featuring a detestable hero, defining love as an unhealthy obsession, and reducing marriage to a slave market lottery, this dark romantic comedy takes indecent delight in the sadomasochistic games played by its cynical characters. Although the Central Park production doesn’t entirely escape these awkward themes, helmer Dan Sullivan wisely acknowledges the play’s problems by adding yet another layer of darkness and attributing the play’s cruel events to the dehumanizing consequences of living in a time of war.

But which war, exactly? While avoiding the ugly patchwork look that would qualify it as Everywar, the overall physical design keeps its options open — but strongly suggests World War I.

The sumptuous fabrics and relaxed silhouettes of Jane Greenwood’s formal costumes for the French court flirt with the late Edwardian period, as does the geometric fretwork of Scott Pask’s stunning arcade set, which looks like a Louis Sullivan work of cast-iron art under Peter Kaczorowski’s lights. But it’s the bristling sensibility of wartime nerves, as much as the design, that provides a rationale for the hurtful things that people do to one another.

No one in this play is more pitiless than Bertram (Andre Holland), the young Count of Rousillion who skips off to war with his jackass pal, Parolles (Reg Rogers), rather than bed down with his lovesick bride, Helena (Annie Parisse), who claimed him as her boon for curing the King of France (John Cullum) of a nasty disease. But instead of shutting herself up in a convent, the resourceful Helena follows her feckless man into war, armed with the kind of underhanded tricks and subterfuges known only to scorned wives and obsessive stalkers.

According to what you think about women who trap their husbands and smother them with unwanted affection, Helena is either the cleverest of Shakespearean heroines or one sick lady. Surprise-surprise, Parisse (“Becky Shaw”) plays this problematic character with the subtlety to support both readings. Looking every bit the neurotic spinster when we meet her in Greenwood’s beaded black slip of a gown, she lusts after Bertram with passion, but pursues him with intelligence.

Holland (“The Whipping Man”) has a rougher time of it with the object of her obsessive affection. Bertram’s dishonorable behavior is only palatable if he’s played as an immature boy or a young man with irresistible sex appeal. Holland goes for the baby-boy option, ending up as a hero who is cute-cute-cute, but, as the Jacques Brel song goes, “in a stupid-ass way.”

The brutal unmasking and humiliation of Bertram’s friend, the cowardly braggart Parolles (played with vigorous style by Rogers), is another needle in the eye of the play. While this ugly scene might have passed for comedy in Shakespeare’s day, Sullivan puts a brilliant spin on the mob action by staging it on an active battlefield (with a vintage cannon strategically situated near the soldiers’ tents) and intensifying the cruelty to suggest that war does, indeed, harden the human heart.

This is the kind of scene setting that always shivers our timbers when dusk falls on Shakespeare in the Park’s open-air stage, and Sullivan (“The Merchant of Venice”) is a master of the art. (The final scene of the play, a black-on-black funeral service staged with iron-backed chairs, is classic Sullivan.) At the same time, it’s a pleasure just to hear the language of the play articulated so well by a well-versed cast. (Kudos to vocal coach Shane-Ann Younts seem called for.) John Cullum uses his musical voice to thrilling effect as the King of France, while Tonya Pinkins lends her bell-like tones to the regal Countess of Rousillion. And as the old lord, Lafew, stage veteran Dakin Matthews takes the honors for perfect vocal clarity. But even less well-seasoned thesps like Lorenzo Pisoni (as one of the Dumaine brothers) and Carson Elrod (a lowly soldier) bring great diction to their smaller but neatly conceived roles in a show that’s all about values.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Delacorte Theater; 1872 seats; free

  • Production: A Public Theater presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
  • Crew: Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; music, Tom Kitt; sound, Acme Sound Partners; hair and wigs, Tom Watson; fight director, Thomas Schall; choreographer, Mimi Lieber; vocal coach, Shane-Ann Younts; production stage manager, James Latus. Reviewed June 21, 2011. Opened June 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.
  • Cast: Countess of Rousillion - Tonya Pinkins <br> Bertram - Andre Holland <br> Parolles - Reg Rogers <br> Helena - Annie Parisse <br> Lafew - Dakin Matthews <br> King of France - John Cullum <br> First Brother Dumain - Lorenzo Pisoni <br> Second Brother Dumain - Michael Hayden With: Aleque Reid, Jordan Lund, David Manis, Caitlin O'Connell, Joe Forbrich, Kristen Connolly, Zoey Martinson, Katie Meister, Katie Wieland, Carson Elrod, Lucas Caleb Rooney.