Ah, Venice!

Photo: Joan Marcus

Shortly before Daniel Sullivan’s moody, transfixing vision of The Merchant of Venice gets under way at the Delacorte, we’re led in prayer. Okay, so it’s actually just a sponsorship announcement, your typical “special thanks to Bank of America”: Without the largesse of this “civic-minded institution,” we’re gently reminded, Shakespeare in the Park would be nothing but actors in bathrobes screaming at each other over road noise and raucous waterfowl—no flawless sound design, no nifty sets or lighting, and certainly no Al Pacino as Shylock.

Sullivan’s bought some nice stuff with B of A’s bailout cash, and, in the bargain, he’s quietly channeling some of the bailout backlash, too. His post-crash Merchant makes subtle-yet-ruthless use of all the crabbed passions, justice-hungry politics, and exigent economics of the moment. At the show’s center is money: faithless, treacherous, indispensable money. (For the first half, a gleaming stock ticker sits, resplendent, in the eye of the round, like a shiny gold watch wired to a time bomb.) Yet we’re never allowed to forget that every dramatic transaction onstage is backed by less abstract collateral: flesh. Full of wonder and dread, the show represents a sizable return on B of A’s generous investment. It’s so good, in fact, that it nearly justifies the write-off of its rep companion, Michael Greif’s shambolic The Winter’s Tale—which is, by the most conservative estimate, a total loss.

But let’s make like CEOs and put the good news up front: Al Pacino is officially not ridiculous again! His Shylock, no mere roarer or tic-ish show pony, is a sensitive and complex figure—a man of law and logic made stranger by estrangement, from Christian society at large and from his restless teenage daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), in particular. That’s not to suggest for a second that it’s not Al freakin’ Pacino up there: Is there still a singsong quality to his cadences? A calculated vocal detonation to punctuate each rage? When you prick him, does he not hoo-wah? You bet your little frien’ he does.

Yet here, even more than in Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of Merchant (where he first assayed the role), Pacino attunes himself on Shylock’s vulnerability rather than his fiery fixation on that famous pound of flesh. He and Sullivan have settled on a variant of the modern hubristic approach to “the Jew” (an approach I hesitate to call “revisionist” because it’s so elegantly supported by the text). In this reading, Shylock is a victim of systemic persecution, pushed over the brink by the insults of his high-handed debtor, the generous but reckless merchant-prince Antonio (Byron Jennings, who manages to be simultaneously Christly and vampiric—and not in a do-me, Robert Pattinson kind of way, either). Worse, Shylock is coping with the elopement/abduction of his daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), engineered by her callow stud Lorenzo (Bill Heck) and his fratty tribe of prodigal goyim. (Jesse L. Martin, as boor-in-chief Gratiano, makes for a dangerously boisterous bigot’s bigot.) House invaded, daughter taken, his means and honor hanging in the balance, “the Jew” seeks revenge not in the Sweeney Todd mode, but via (horrors!) the courts. He merely calls in a lawful marker freely and fecklessly given by Antonio—sixteen ounces of prime Christian cube steak, promised in a moment of Lehman-like overconfidence. Worst of all, Shylock won’t be appeased with money—won’t, in other words, be a good Jew and happily retire to his counting house. Indeed, he’s the only man in Merchant who can’t be bought, and this purity of purpose ultimately proves his undoing. Brute profit isn’t open to his enemies’ interpretation, but legal principle is, and Shylock’s revenge gambit falters against the lawyering of his only moral equal, Portia (Lily Rabe).

Wealthy and semi-mythic enough to live outside the economy and the bounds of reality itself, Portia has more money than Bruce Wayne and twice his appetite for costumed justice. Rabe plays her with a perfect Hepburnian set of the jaw and a flinty wit that sparks against the steel of Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Nerissa, her crisp gentlewoman. Before donning barrister drag and heading to court to save Antonio, Portia’s had no cause to cross paths with her eventual nemesis: Shylock lives in a hardscrabble world of ducats and sense, locked in a banker’s cage. (Mark Wendland’s excellent set, with its concentric hoops of ironwork and rattling abaci, attacks this idea with effective literalness.) Portia, by contrast, exists in a cloud world held aloft by money, blissfully unmindful of this fact. These star-crossed realms are brought crashing together by her intended, Bassanio (Hamish Linklater), the Venetian equivalent of a floppy-haired Williamsburg couch surfer. Carefully interpreted by Linklater as a sweet, natty, hipster mooch—the kind of good-looking bad bet no one can seem to refuse—Bassanio’s the reason Antonio finds himself in debt to Shylock in the first place. But Linklater (the luminously dim-witted Sir Andrew Aguecheek from last year’s Sullivan-helmed Twelfth Night) never shorts Bassanio as a cad or a fool. His Bassanio is instead a consumer, willfully ignorant of where wealth comes from or where it goes when he’s finished spending it.

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.

Ah, Venice!