Take a good look at Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the clown princes who are making a dazzling spectacle of themselves in Daniel Sullivan’s madcap version of “The Comedy of Errors” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Go on — watch them run into themselves coming and going in their dual roles of two matched pairs of masters and servants. Listen to their flawless delivery of double entendres in Shakespearean blank verse. Now, wave goodbye, because who knows when we’ll see these comic wunderkinder together on stage again, now that they’ve been welcomed into TV-sitcom land.
There’s a good reason why the Public Theater hasn’t mounted a production of this early Shakespearean comedy in more than 20 years. It’s stupid, that’s why, and it takes a very wily director indeed to come up with a gimmick that will translate its comedic conventions into modern terms.
In this one-joke farce lifted from Plautus, a nobleman’s identical twin sons and their identical twin servants are separated in a storm at sea and wash up on opposite shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Years on, one twin (played by Linklater) and his servant (played by Ferguson) land in Ephesus, the home of the other lost twin (also played by Linklater) and his servant (also played by Ferguson).
This leads to endless incidents of mistaken identity, keystone komedy chases, burlesque gags, and the kind of raunchy jokes that cracked up Elizabethan audiences. A loose-limbed cast gleefully throws itself into this crowd-pleasing nonsense. Emily Bergl makes herself seen and (especially) heard as a wailing wife who thinks her husband has betrayed her, and Jonathan Hadary is his usual dependable self playing the only straightman in this company of clowns.
The partnership between the two leads proves an ideal marriage of styles. Linklater, the tall one with the laddie-boy charm and flawless enunciation, is the fast-talking partner, master of those precisely articulated verbal witticisms that Shakespeare wrote specifically for his brainier clowns. Ferguson, the red-headed rogue with the naughty grin, is the physical clown, the little scamp who can execute a nimble pratfall and do a perfect double-take. Each thesp has absolute command of his own style, which followed them into their TV comedy roles (Ferguson a current favorite in “Modern Family,” Linklater most visible in “The New Adventures of Old Christine”). But it’s the chemistry between the two that makes sparks on stage.
This well-matched pair is up for anything that helmer Sullivan throws at them in this fun show, which has no discernible theme, but a lot of nerve. References in the play to the town of Siracusa in Sicily must have reminded someone of the town of Syracuse in upstate New York, so voila, this “Comedy of Errors” takes place in the Adirondacks.
Whatever the directorial inspiration, John Lee Beatty has realized it with a funhouse of a set — three colorful double-decker structures that revolve (and revolve and revolve) to reveal children’s theater-scaled scenes of a bus station, a hotel, a burlesque house, public baths, various shops, and a convent. And since there appears to be a heavy Mafia presence up here in Onondaga County, the Duke of Ephesus and his royal court are rendered by a portly Mafia don (a hoot of a perf from Skipp Sudduth, laying it on thick) and a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards in double-breasted black suits and fedoras (the witty work of costumer Toni-Leslie James).
But what you really want to know is what a chorus of terrific dancers, strenuously jitterbugging to the 1940s swing music playing on a vintage jukebox, are doing up here in the wilds of Syracuse, or, as Shakespeare might have preferred it, Siracusa. Can’t help you with that one. I’m still trying to figure out where the nuns got those tommyguns.