Embroidering the edges, Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson is dryly daffy as the clown-manservant Launcelot Gobbo, and Max Wright and Nyambi Nyambi bring down the house as oafish rival suitors to Portia. The laughs are precious; Sullivan’s Merchant is no comedy. Even in the end, as losses are magically erased and adventurous debtors improbably bailed out, everyone’s left holding empty bonds. Love itself is revealed to be very much for sale, as much a market commodity as anything else. There’s a keen sense of dissatisfaction: Wasn’t that escape a little too easy? Are the books really back in black? Or are new catastrophes, new creditors, new demons crouched just offstage?
They are—in the form, I’m afraid, of The Winter’s Tale. Michael Greif appears to have tackled a “problem play” with the notion of making it more problematic, or at least more cluttered. He opens with jealous King Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) bellowing and barking and burying his face in his hands, as he literally paces in circles, searching out a center that isn’t there. Leontes suspects his brother-king, Polixenes of Bohemia (Martin), of bedding his wife, Hermione (Linda Emond). But we suspect that he’s really just pissed off at his own lack of motivation: Santiago-Hudson seems to be playing the king beat-to-beat, and never finds a taut psychological arc. Granted, the Sicilian king is a most infuriating tyrant: What triggers his jealousy? Why can’t he explain himself? Is he crazy? Answers aren’t readily supplied by the text, but somebody ought to know.
Maybe the director? Greif instead busies himself littering the stage with junk: pillows, fire pits, a chintzy gilt ark, shabby-looking paper birds on poles, and some very, very miscalculated sheep puppets. The show looks and feels like a sprawling flea market with nothing you really want to buy. Bank of America might consider an audit.