Kristen Johnston and Jimmy Smitsin Much Ado About Nothing(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Kristen Johnston and Jimmy Smits
in Much Ado About Nothing
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
The brilliance of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing begins with its title. Since many people choose to take the title phrase at face value, it probably can't be repeated enough that the play is much ado about plenty and about something terrifying: the near destruction of a young woman, brought about by a reckless prank.

Possibly it's 20th-century definitions of comedy that cause viewers to minimalize the devastating treatment of the sweetly innocent Hero while focusing on the snappy byplay between Beatrice, who claims to loathe men, and Benedick, who has equal disdain for women. Certainly, the neatly turned, hilariously nasty comments that these two eventual lovers make to and about each other are good for solid laughs. The Bard's jokes are even funny when indifferently delivered, as they are in David Esbjornson's mediocre current production by Kristen Johnston as a straight-shooting Beatrice and Jimmy Smits as a giddy-with-uncertain-love Benedick. "The fault will be in the music," Beatrice remarks to Hero (Elisabeth Waterston) when speaking of the wooing that's coming Hero's way from Don Pedro (Peter Francis James), who's doing Cyrano de Bergerac duty on behalf of the smitten Claudio (Lorenzo Pisoni).

Though Beatrice is talking about unconvincing wooing, Johnston might have been describing what's not to be heard in this Shakespeare in Central Park offering by The Public Theater. Although composer Mark Bennett has composed a number of pretty airs, including a setting of "Sigh No More, Ladies," there is precious little music to be heard as Esbjornson's cast members speak the lines. Trippingly on the tongue? Not exactly; tripping on the tongue is more like it. How curious to notice that two vocal coaches, Deborah Hecht and Kate Maré, are credited as making contributions and to notice further that their work has had such little effect.

What to make of so many actors who have done superior work in the past figuratively falling on their prats in this mounting? Earlier this season, Johnston gave a superlative performance in Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon. Yet here she is, in Jess Goldstein's lacy dresses and a long, unflattering Charles LaPointe wig, speaking plainly in the wrong sense of that adverb. She seems to be having no fun as the wisecracking Beatrice. Neither does Jimmy Smits appear to be enjoying his sallies against the woman he comes to desire. He plays Benedick more like a schoolboy jeering at girls during recess -- and this after his soigné outing last fall in Anna in the Tropics.

Lorenzo Pisoni, who last did Shakespeare at the Public in an amazing As You Like It, brings little color and lots of pouting to Claudio. (A skilled acrobat, he does toss off one wonderful back flip.) Jayne Houdyshell, who has given two knockout performances in the past six months (in Well and Fighting Words), is unprepossessing as Hero's attending Ursula. Elisabeth Waterston, charming in Trip Cullman's version of The Vortex a few years ago, looks lovely as Hero, but when she begins chatting, she has little resonance. And when Hero is falsely accused by Claudio of sluttish behavior, Waterston doesn't elicit audience sympathy as she should. (She also needs instruction on the proper use of a parasol.)

Sam Waterston, the real-life dad of Elisabeth, was Benedick in the Public's top-notch 1972 Much Ado. Thirty-two years later, playing Hero's father, Leonato, he shouts and sputters so consistently that he sounds as if he's losing his voice. Dominic Chianese, known to the world as Uncle Junior in The Sopranos, rises to okay level as Leonato's cane-swinging brother. Of the entire cast, only Brian Murray really delivers: Spouting Dogberry's malapropisms as if channeling Bert Lahr, he's mellifluously joyful. Murray gets applause on his every exit, the audience obviously grateful that someone's finally doing it right.

When so many commendable professionals fall so far short of the mark, there's only one place to turn for explanation: Director Esbjornson has to shoulder the blame. Why he encouraged the troupe to broadcast Shakespeare's poetry and prose as if addressing the hard-of-hearing is anyone's guess and it's particularly puzzling in light of the outdoor theater's amplification. Yes, Acme Sound Partners faces daunting problems with sound design in this venue, but it isn't acceptable that there are many instances where it's a challenge to figure out just who on the stage is blaring the line of the moment.

Julio Monge, Bill Heck, Brian Murray, Frank Faucette,and Sean Patrick Thomas in Much Ado About Nothing(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Julio Monge, Bill Heck, Brian Murray, Frank Faucette,
and Sean Patrick Thomas in Much Ado About Nothing
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Maneuvering his players around Christine Jones's adequate set, which features an elaborate bridge upstage and many set pieces wheeled around on casters downstage, Esbjornson comes up with clever business when Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato talk of Beatrice's love for Benedick while the astonished Benedick eavesdrops: The action takes place around a well into which Benedick tumbles. But Esbjornson runs out of notions in the counterpoint scene wherein Hero and Ursula intentionally allow Beatrice to overhear them discussing Benedick's unrequited passion. Here, the director rolls out a vat and gets Johnston into it, as if she were Lucille Ball in an I Love Lucy episode. Unfortunately, Johnston isn't Ball. On balance, Esbjornson offers a deficient interpretation of the piece. Charged with manipulating actors who are not particularly light on their feet, choreographer Jane Comfort has had about as much success with her task as the vocal coaches mentioned above.

It's the power of Shakespeare's writing that carries the day, if the day or rainless night is at all carried. Beatrice and Benedick rank with the smartest of the Bard's lovers. She's witty in the way that Rosalind and Katherine are while he's dashing, commanding, and unsophisticated about romance in the way that Petruchio and Berowne of Love's Labor's Lost are. Hero's plight -- she's restored to life after it's been put about by Leonato that her shaming was fatal -- is similar to Hermione's in The Winter's Tale. In his comedies, Shakespeare routinely introduced dark elements; in all of his work, he presented men as being less informed about the intricacies of life than women are. His notion of comedy is quite broad, and his startling range is a major reason why his comedies sparkle.

This Much Ado About Nothing arrives amid sustained talk of The Public Theater having modified its ticketing policy for the Delacorte productions as well as the 2002 cutback to one Bard bonanza per summer. That this production isn't high-quality stuff makes you wonder not so much whether one show is insufficient but, rather, if Regan might have a point in King Lear when she asks, "What need one?" Just doing Shakespeare is no great shakes; doing him proud is the idea. When the Public's new artistic director takes over, he or she may want to rethink the entire enterprise in order to make much ado about something.