F. Murray Abraham in
The Merchant of Venice
(©  Gerry Goodstein)
F. Murray Abraham in
The Merchant of Venice
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Darko Tresnjak could have had no inkling that the week his remarkably cogent 2007 Theatre for a New Audience production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice returns to New York at Pace University's Schimmel Center as part of its national tour, would be the same week that fashion maverick John Galliano makes international headlines for anti-Semitic remarks videotaped at a Paris bar. But the ugly coincidence only emphasizes how painfully current William Shakespeare's 16th-century depiction of intolerance remains 400-plus years later.

That sort of harassment echoes what Jewish moneylender Shylock (F. Murray Abraham) endures consistently at the hands and expectorating mouth of slick businessman Antonio (Tom Nelis), and possibly explains Shylock's inflexible desire to extract the pound of flesh contracted after Antonio fails to repay that 3,000-ducat loan he took out to help dear friend Bassanio (the handsome Lucas Hall).

Of course, Shylock famously strains his mercy at the eventual trial where Bassanio's beloved Portia (Kate MacCluggage) -- masquerading as a young male lawyer -- trips him up by noting the pound of flesh must be accompanied by no blood; yet, here, Shylock's actions seem more understandable than usual.

Abraham won plaudits four years back for his work in this frighteningly challenging role, and he's still got his approach down pat. In a black yarmulkeh and grey suit (a Mad Men-like look provided by costumer Linda Cho), Abraham sees Shylock as a businessman who is every bit as slick as Antonio and his insulting peers. In addition, he's both a defender of his faith and a father confounded -- and ultimately broken -- by the decision of his daughter Jessica (Melissa Miller) to leave home, convert to Christianity, and marry Lorenzo (Vince Nappo).

Equaling Abraham in skill is MacCluggage -- a member of the long-running 39 Steps cast -- who makes a startling and star-making appearance here. Model-stunning, with legs that seem to stretch from here to the Hamptons, MacCluggage has the regal manner of a post-debutante with a Seven Sisters degree, and does a fine job during the trial sequence.

The supporting cast is also quite strong, notably, the hilarious Jacob Ming-Trent, who makes Launcelot Gobbo the next thing to a hip-hop champ. Unfortunately, Ted Schneider goes over the top as Gratiano, a rare misstep in this otherwise first-rate production.