Michael Cumpsty and Kathryn Meisle
in Much Ado About Nothing
(© Joan Marcus)
Michael Cumpsty and Kathryn Meisle
in Much Ado About Nothing
(© Joan Marcus)
The quips fly and the sparks ignite, as expected, in Sam Buntrock's often-sparkling production of William Shakespeare's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, at Red Bank's Two River Theater Company. But rarely has one wished for the quick-witted Benedick and Beatrice to consummate their union as devoutly as one does here, thanks to the exemplary work of Michael Cumpsty and Kathryn Meisle.

While somewhat older than the text might indicate, Cumpsty and Meisle still convey just a touch of innocence; it's clear neither has ever experienced true love before. And from their first encounter on Tony Straiges' lovely recreation of an Italian villa (which echoes his set for Broadway's Enchanted April), audiences can't help but root for them to let down their guard and let each other in.

Until they do, however, one can also revel in their remarkable facility with the Bard's ripostes. Indeed, the sharp-tongued Meisle -- who looks smashing in Mattie Ulrich's 1930s-inspired costumes -- brings a touch of Noel Cowardesque flair to her delivery. (At times, one isn't sure if this is Much Ado or Private Lives.) And both actors also prove to be adept physicial comedians. Cumpsty is downright hilarious as he tries to hide behind trees, trunks, and chairs in one of Buntrock's most inspired sequences.

The British director has added a number of inventive touches to the production, most notably having the entire cast often sing or play their own instruments, including piano, clarinet, and guitar. (It's not as John Doyleish as it sounds.) But for all his conceputal brilliance, Buntrock has undercut the total success of his production by some less-than-felicitious casting.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the second act, where young Claudio (Aaron Clifton Moten) rejects Beatrice's cousin Hero (Annaouran Siriam) on their wedding day having been deceived about her fidelity, after which she is announced (falsely) to be dead. While it's admirable that Buntrock has cast attractive young actors in the role, Moten and Siriam's performances are very shallow.

Even more disappointing is the uneven work of Tom Bloom as Hero's father, Leonato. He mumbles some speeches, rushes some words, and rarely gives the role the gravity or poignancy it requires.

Fortunately, far better work comes from Sean Dugan as the malevolent Don John, Steven Skybell as an unusually jovial Don Pedro, Christopher Hirsh as a very sexy, cocky Barrachio, and, above all, the hilarious John Ahlin, who makes a feast out of the relatively small role of Dogberry, the foolish Constable.

Luckily, to quote another of the Bard's plays, all's well that ends well, as Buntrock stages a joyous wedding sequence, and Beatrick and Benedick finally get what they deserve -- each other.