The joy of a perfectly calibrated production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is in watching warring wits Benedick and Beatrice slowly yet surely drop their proverbial armor and reveal themselves as love-struck fools who have no choice but to admit they've always been made for each other. So when the two [Spoiler Alert] finally come together in wedded bliss at the play's end, one usually wants to stand, cheer, and throw rice. But as the curtain drew close at director Arin Arbus' new production of this captivating play for Theatre for a New Audience, now at The Duke on 42nd Street, it took all my strength not to stand up and yell "Benedick, don't do it! You're too good for her!"
I doubt I was the only one harboring those thoughts.
For those just tuning in, Much Ado About Nothing begins as a group of soldiers has returned to Messina, Sicily, to take up lodging with the elderly, wealthy Leonato. Once ensconced, Leonato's niece, the long-unmarried Beatrice, resumes a long-standing battle of barbs with bachelor warrior Benedick, while Leonato's young daughter, Hero, becomes smitten with the virtuous soldier Claudio. All an ideal frame for a great deal of verbal sparring and, in this case, Benedick's myriad virtues.
It's not just that anyone in the audience might want this production's Benedick, played Broadway and film star Jonathan Cake (Cymbeline), for his or her own, due to the actor's undeniable physical appeal. (That he speaks the Bard's lilting language, made mellifluous by his native British accent, with enormous ease, doesn't hurt.) Above all else, Cake--in his finest stage performance to date--has crafted the ideal Benedick. He may start off as a bit too cocksure and self-satisfied in his bachelorhood, but by play's end, he's a man who knows how to deftly utilize just enough of his smart tongue to remain intellectually stimulating, while also imbuing the character with an irresistible mix of puppy-dog charm and romantic chivalry.
This new and improved Benedick should help his Beatrice's (Mad Men's Maggie Siff) inner softness come to the outward fore without effort. But while Cake melts marvelously, Siff barely thaws no matter the circumstance. For example, when Benedick reluctantly agrees to sacrifice his friendship with young Claudio--if not his life--at Beatrice's urging, she barely musters indifference. Beatrice remains the shrew untamed to the very end, a woman defined almost by solely by her quick tongue and her unrivaled capacity for scorn. There's little hint that she has developed, never mind acknowledged, her capacity for love even as the two prepare to become husband and wife.
Fortunately, Arbus makes few other missteps here. Her simple, spot-on staging on Riccardo Hernandez's set, a mostly-bare rectangular stage dominated by a large tree placed to the side of the stage, helps audiences focus on the plot. Admittedly, not much is made of resetting the show in the 1910s, but the update never feels jarring, either. Composer Michael Friedman's original music is well utilized, and Constance Hoffman's costumes nicely fit the period, even if they never dazzle.
Arbus has also done well in guiding the rest of her cast. Too often, the young lovers Claudio and Hero come off as silly, callow youths not worth caring about, but Matthew Amendt and Michelle Beck bring welcome maturity and fire to these roles. The result brings true pathos to the dominant subplot in the show's second half, in which Hero must be pretend to dead after being shamed by a duped Claudio on their wedding day. A scene in which Claudio visits Hero's grave (as she watches from above) nearly moved me to tears. The rest of the cast is solidly composed as well. Robert Landgon Lloyd is effective, if occasionally overwrought, as Hero's father, Leonato; Saxon Palmer nicely underplays the villainous Don John; Kate MacCluggage does much with little as Hero's gentlewoman Margaret; and John Christopher Jones and John Keating provide needed comic relief as the constantly misspeaking constable Dogberry and his sidekick Verges. (Keating is also quite good as local priest Father Francis, even if he seems to have come to Sicily by way of County Clare.)
Perhaps I'm making too much ado about Siff's miscalculated performance. But I believe Beatrice and Benedick deserve to live happily ever after. This time, however, Shakespeare's fairytale seems destined to have an unpleasant chapter or two in its epilogue.