Jennifer Ehlre and Liev Schreiberin Macbeth
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Jennifer Ehlre and Liev Schreiber
in Macbeth
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Liev Schreiber has one of the great speaking voices of our time. His resonant baritone can be described in terms used for perfumes: woodsy with hints of lemon and quince undertones. Simultaneously soothing and invigorating, the Schreiber voice never goes plummy. It has served him -- and lucky theatergoers -- well in such Shakespearean roles as Hamlet, Cymbeline, Iago, Henry V, and even Banquo in The Public Theater's 1999 production of Macbeth. Unfortunately, it doesn't serve him as well now that he's graduated to playing the title role in Moisés Kaufman's Central Park staging of Macbeth, the Bard's no-frills classic about the wages of vaulting ambition.

The problem here is one of refinement, both in Schreiber's pellucid voice and the production surrounding him. Kaufman, in his first go at the Bard, has chosen to offer Macbeth as a kind of boulevard tragedy, which is something of a mistake. In this version, the savage husband and wife, whose individual guilty consciences kick in at different stages, are presented as a business-savvy couple out to seek a promotion from a vulnerable boss. Not that the blood doesn't flow; it certainly does. The busy Macbeths and their victims frequently show up dripping from what must be a sizable backstage vat of fake blood.

Still, for too much of the play, Schreiber and fellow Tony Award winner Jennifer Ehle -- whose Lady Macbeth owes a good deal to Grace Kelly in High Society -- talk and behave as if their greatest collaborative ambition is to mix the perfect dry martini. Yes, Shakespeare perceptively portrays Macbeth as a man with the capacity to question his motives and Lady Macbeth as a woman who calculatingly questions her husband's misgivings. But no matter how analytic they are, they must also appear more cutthroat than Kaufman requires them to be.

To give Kaufman his due, the production has more than a few clever details; for instance, early in the play Macbeth washes the blood of a victorious battle off his hands easily. And there's one true inspiration: The sudden, astonishing reveal that Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane. (I suspect that no one has ever done it better.) There are also a few outstanding supporting performances, including one by Jacob Fishel, who is subtly strong as wronged-heir-to-the-throne Malcolm. Weird sisters Joan MacIntosh, Ching Valdes-Aran, and Lynn Cohen stomp around authoritatively in whiteface and desert camouflage. On the other hand, Florenzia Lozano is unacceptable as Lady MacDuff.

In the program, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis emphasizes that he's devoting the institution's 2006 season in the park to a pair of plays that he hopes will provoke serious reflection on the Iraq war. (Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children with Meryl Streep is up next.) And he ain't just whistlin' "Give Peace a Chance." Set designer Derek McLane has provided a ruined upstage wall with a jutting staircase that looks like the remains of something Saddam Hussein might have built for himself.

Along the same lines, Acme Sound Partners keep the distant gunfire and streaking bombs going through the loudspeakers, while lighting designer David Lander follows suit with chiaroscuro effects. Costume designer Michael Krass dresses the military men and woman appropriately, although he otherwise settles for a mixture of 20th-century clothes as weird in its fashion-crossed way as those ubiquitous clairvoyant sisters are in their Beelzebub-is-our-best-friend manner.

Indeed, there's a basic disconnect in both the concept and the production. The prelude, with stressed soldiers littering the stage, says "Iraq war" as blatantly as Fox News supports it -- yet, the rest of the play specifies the era between the World Wars. That sort of muddle is just one reason this Macbeth really doesn't work.