Jimmy Smits and Julia Stiles in Twelfth Night
(Photo: Michal Daniels)
Jimmy Smits and Julia Stiles in Twelfth Night
(Photo: Michal Daniels)
Any production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will in which Malvolio is the voice of reason must be somewhat off track. That's the situation in Central Park, with Brian Kulick's go at the comedy that Shakespeare probably wrote in 1601, just before he girded himself for the likes of Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio is the servant to Olivia--and a martinet who generally seems to deserve the harsh practical joke played on him by Olivia's hangers-on. But as Kulick has directed those hangers-on (Maria and the bumbling Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian) they are so loutish--squirting wine bags around the stage as if urinating on it, for instance--that Malvolio's consistently high-minded and disdainful treatment of them seems appropriate.

This awkward skewing of the play is only one of the problems Kulick and his collaborators have created that keep the production from being more than intermittently entertaining. One of the other large drawbacks can be spotted even before the action begins: It's Walt Spangler's set, which takes its inspiration from the shipwreck that has left Viola abandoned in Illyria and bereft (or so she thinks) of her twin brother, Sebastian. Spangler has put on stage what looks like a giant wave rising towards the back as if about to crash. On this swell, for which surfers would go weak in the knees, he's placed a gashed frigate.

In other words, what the audience looks at throughout the evening is an image that applies only to the very beginning of the play and is no more than tangentially pertinent to it thereafter. And the only thing Spangler can think to do with that reminder of disaster is to lower it somewhat before intermission and, later, cover it with bouquets of artificial roses. This set will be a disappointment to anyone who recalls the sumptuous designs Bob Crowley gave Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center only a few years ago.

Not to belabor the point, but there is one other unfortunate feature of that high wave. It's plain when a small rug is spotted at its crest that characters will be skidding down it as if on a fun-house slide; and, when Viola does so, it's kind of cute. But Kulick is stuck with the device, and its subsequent (over)use becomes uninteresting, if not downright tiresome. The one exception is the arrival of Antonio; he's the fellow who's attached himself to the still-alive-and-kicking Sebastian, who thinks he's the sole surviving twin. Anyway, Antonio stands upright as he rides his carpet into the proceedings. He practically hangs ten.

David Harbour, playing Antonio, is figuratively hanging ten since he's one of the players who most effectively carries off his assignment. It's another measure of Kulick's hit-and-miss attack on Twelfth Night that Antonio, who gets caught up in the plague of mistaken identity crises, stands out. He does so along with Christopher Lloyd, whose stern turn as Malvolio can now be added to the list of oddballs he has played with the kind of relish that Boris Karloff brought to his roles. Others who prove their Shakespearean mettle are Zach Braff as a derring-do Sebastian and Kevin Isola, who gives amusing life to the trouble-making Fabian. Kristen Johnston, who earlier this year was more vulgar than necessary in The Women, jumps to life in her later scenes here, the ones where costume designer Miguel Angel Huidor gets Olivia's crowd out of black and into white so Johnston can show off her buxom charms.

Christopher Lloyd (front) is mocked by
Michael Stuhlbarg, Oliver Platt,and Kevin Isola in Twelfth Night
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Christopher Lloyd (front) is mocked by
Michael Stuhlbarg, Oliver Platt,
and Kevin Isola in Twelfth Night
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Shakespeare's contention that people often fall in love for questionable reasons is apparent from the first line, when Duke Orsino declares plummily: "If music be the food of love, play on." The three focal figures in Twelfth Night--Orsino, Viola and Olivia--are all thwarted in their profligate passions. Orsino pines for Olivia; Viola, dressed as the boyish Cesario to join Orsino's court, longs for Orsino; and Olivia, whom Maria says is "addicted to her melancholy," has decided she's loony for Cesario. These entanglements, added to the Malvolio shenanigans, are the sum and substance of the work. When they're unraveled, the play ends. Well, the play actually comes to a close as the wise fool Feste, enacted without much sense of festivity by Michael Potts, sings one of Shakespeare's most touching lyrics--the one in which is repeated the somber line, "For the rain it raineth everyday." (This wary view of love is almost always put forward by Shakespeare, no matter how happily-ever-after his comedies seem to conclude.)

Unfortunately, Jimmy Smits' Orsino, Julia Stiles' Viola, and Kathryn Meisle's Olivia are only patchily successful. Meisle seems to have disregarded Maria's observation about addiction to melancholy. True, Shakespeare wonders just how melancholy Olivia is and hints that she's exploiting grief, but that element must be somewhere in the performance other than as symbolized by the lady's black veil; Meisle plays the part as if she's a busy executive, speaking it efficiently but avoiding the humanity. Stiles does exceedingly well with the gorgeous speech about the lady who never declared her love "and let concealment like a worm i' the bud feed on her damask cheek" but, elsewhere, her Viola is one of those teens who end declarative sentences as if they were questions. ("For I never saw her?" she says at one point, when she means to inform Orsino that, as his go-between, she indeed never saw Olivia.) Smits, looking smart in flowing robes and a van Dyck, is oddly limp-wristed as the Duke and somehow manages to point up how small the role is.

As for Oliver Platt as Sir Toby Belch and the usually flawless Michael Stuhlbarg as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, they mistake grossness for humor. This approach only pays off when Platt gets laughs downing much of a wine bag's contents in one gulp. Stuhlbarg does look adorable in the second half when Huidor dresses him like the dormouse in "Alice in Wonderland"; otherwise, he and Platt throw themselves wholeheartedly into a There's Something About Mary mode that only adds to the whole enterprise's air of being not enough about Shakespeare. It's less "What You Will" than what you'd rather not.