Set in Vienna (although you'd hardly know it from Daniel Ostling's deadening, metaphorical set design), the story gets underway with the Duke (Joe Morton) choosing to temporarily turn over the reigns of power to his morally strident underling, Lord Angelo (Billy Crudup). The Duke has no sooner disappeared than Angelo sentences young Claudio (Daniel Pino) to death for fornicating with Juliet (no, not that Juliet). It turns out that a law against such activity is on the books but was not enforced for generations until Angelo chose to make an example of Claudio. The doomed man's virginal sister, Isabella (Sanaa Lathan), who is about to enter a convent, goes to Angelo to beg for her brother's life. Her passionate plea arouses something startling in the young moralist--namely, lust. Despite himself, Angelo finds himself offering Isabella an age-old deal: a night in the sack in exchange for her brother's life. The Duke, masquerading as a monk, gets wind of Angelo's hypocrisy and plots with Isabella and her brother's jailer, the Provost (Christopher Donahue), to thwart the new ruler's heinous plan.
During most of the approximately 400 years of this play's existence, Isabella's unwillingness to give up her virginity to save her brother's life was seen as a virtue, while her brother's begging her to do just that was seen as cowardly. Modern morality, however, views Isabella as a selfish prig, and the scene between her and her brother as they debate what she should do is therefore played for comedy. The actress cast as Isabella must walk an emotional tightrope if we're not to turn against her. Unfortunately, Lathan's Isabella not only falls off the high wire, she misses the net and goes splat. Lathan doesn't speak Shakespeare's dialogue; she declaims it. There is no music in her voice, no character in her character. In contrast, Crudup finds a uniquely American way into Lord Angelo, investing the role with a rhythm and style that makes clear his own vulnerability and sense of self-loathing.
The abyss between the performances given by Crudup and Lathan is just one of the many fault lines in this teetering production. It would have been better for all concerned if the winning Felicity Jones, in the modest role of Mariana, had swapped roles with Lathan. Director Zimmerman has admitted on record (in a New York Times interview) that the casting of Measure for Measure was not entirely up to her; a number of actors were foisted upon her by The Public Theater. She didn't name names but, like a good soldier, she professed that it all worked out in the end. Well, not exactly. Morton, as the Duke, has a commanding presence but not the inherent charm required for the part. On other hand, John Pankow as Lucio, a big-mouthed nobleman, all but steals the play with his effervescent delivery of Shakespeare's language.
In fact, all of the actors who play comic characters score well, as does Zimmerman regular Donahue in his straight supporting role. But the production is severely undermined by Morton and Lathan. As a consequence, there is something downright unsettling about the climax of the play: When the Duke makes his romantic move on Isabella, he seems merely a more sophisticated, worldly version of Angelo who has used his power and influence in order to have his way with a woman who has suddenly entranced him. After all, it isn't until the very end of the play that Isabella learns that the Monk was actually the Duke in disguise. He's a virtual stranger when he holds his hand out to her at the end. What can she do? Turn down the Duke after he has saved both her virginity (for the moment) and her brother? We leave the theater with the feeling that Isabella has simply traded a young scoundrel for an older, smarter scoundrel, and that's probably not what Zimmerman or Shakespeare intended.