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The Merchant of Venice

Al Pacino and Lily Rabe give pitch-perfect performances in Daniel Sullivan's meticulous staging of Shakespeare's blistering drama.

By New York City
Gerry Bamman, Lily Rabe and Al Pacino
in The Merchant of Venice
(© Joan Marcus)
Gerry Bamman, Lily Rabe and Al Pacino
in The Merchant of Venice
(© Joan Marcus)
As one of the theater's most respected directors, Daniel Sullivan has nothing to prove to anyone. But with his meticulous and often brilliant Broadway production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, being presented by the Public Theater at the Broadhurst Theatre in an even better version than was seen earlier this year in Central Park, Sullivan proves that the Bard wrote a far more balanced and mult-layered play than its critics claim, leaving audiences to consider a great deal about both the eternal war among religions and the battle between the sexes, as well as the foibles and generosity of human nature.

He also proves two equally important, if less surprising, things: that Al Pacino can still deliver the kind of thoughtful, beautifully complex performance that has made him one of the greatest actors of all time; and that the sublime Lily Rabe may well be the finest stage actress of her generation. These two actors, decades apart in professional experience but nanoseconds apart in terms of craft and passion, simply redefine the words "pitch perfect."

As Shylock, the Jewish moneylender bent on revenge against the Christians who have wronged him, Pacino serves up some of his customary idiosyncratic inflections, off-kilter line readings, and that signature hangdog expression. Yet the actor's notorious over-the top flamboyance only rarely rears its head; even the famous, blistering "Hath a Jew not eyes" speech is rendered with the proper tonality. In the end, he creates a decidedly human Shylock, neither completely villainous nor overly sympathetic.

Rabe dazzles from her first entrance in a striking red dress from designer Jess Goldstein. (All of the costumes conjure the turn-of-the-20th Century; and Rabe's outfits, in particular, provide a colorful contrast to Mark Wendland's stark if effective metal unit-set.) Bemoaning the elaborate plan that her late father devised to pick her husband to her maid Nerissa (a fine, understated Marsha Stephanie Blake), we quickly see that Portia is witty, intelligent, slightly prickly, and wise beyond her years.

Exactly how wise (and prickly) Portia is something we only eventually find out in the show's later scenes, in which the young woman -- posing as male jurist -- finds a way to truly bring justice to Shylock's suit against the merchant Antonio (the ever-superb Byron Jennings, who gives the character just the right touch of homosexual longing) from whom he has demanded a pound of flesh for failing to pay his loan.

Rabe's recitation of Portia's famed "the quality of mercy" speech is extraordinarily well thought-out, but the true measure of her performance is that practically every word that comes out of her mouth seems just as carefully considered. Those include her giddy declarations of love -- and later, her slightly bitter admonishments -- to her devoted if somewhat feckless husband Bassanio (a mostly stalwart yet nicely romantic David Harbour).

Sullivan doesn't shy away from the comic aspects of the show -- especially the first-act sections in which Portia entertains two suitors for her hand (delightfully portrayed by Isaiah Johnson and Charles Kimbrough). But when the second act grows darker (literally as well as figuratively), Sullivan turns on the dramatic heat to maximum effect, as the audience alternately gasps and holds its breath. With Wendland's help, Sullivan also pulls off a very striking coup de theatre toward's the play's end -- creating not just the show's most haunting image, but one which brings the historical injustices of Shakespeare's time into sharp focus. (He also adds a beautiful visual counterpoint as the show's final's moment.)

Long lauded as an "actor's director," Sullivan is aided in his mission by a mostly first-rate cast, which includes Jesse L. Martin as the very merry Gratiano, Peter Francis James and Matthew Rauch as his compadres Salerio and Solanio, and the always inventive Christopher Fitzgerald as the indolent servant, Launcelot Gobbo.

Indeed, only Seth Numrich and Jessica Lind as unlikely lovers Lorenzo and Jessica, Shylock's rebellious daughter, fail to make as much as an impression as needed, but they hardly dim the luster of this superb production.


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