Much Ado About Nothing
When he spits out the word "marriage" as if it were a piece of bad seafood, or trolls through the audience of the Delacorte Theater searching for eligible women, the Benedick of The Public Theater's new production of Much Ado About Nothing is completely convincing as a confirmed bachelor. But he's doomed, as Benedicks always are, by being fated to fall for his acid-tongued nemesis, Beatrice.
As played by Jimmy Smits, the difficult and often painful journey Benedick makes from hit-and-run lothario to willing husband-to-be is the most enlivening part of this Much Ado, which is playing through August 8. Smits has adopted for this production a lithe and loose physical presence that loudly suggests comedy while quietly whispering of a smoldering romanticism. As one or another of the two attitudes surfaces during the course of the play, you get the sense that Benedick never feels as in control of his emotions and actions as he'd like the others to believe.
This is never more aptly demonstrated than in the uproarious first-act scene in which he overhears his friends speaking of Beatrice's feelings for him - which they've manufactured to get the two together - and reacts with vigor so sizeable, it seems as if the 1900-seat Delacorte is too small to contain it. But it's only during scenes like this, when Smits saunters his way to the forefront of the action to be broadsided by love (and occasionally wells and orange peels), that this Much Ado About Nothing moves from steady simmer to full boil.
More than anyone else in the company, Smits taps into the inherent optimism and bravado provided by the post-World War I time period in which director David Esbjornson has set the play. (He has not relocated the action from the Messina, Sicily specified by author William Shakespeare.) That quality is lacking in most of the other performances, and tends to prevent much of the rest of the show from taking off, though the energy with which Esbjornson has imbued the production gives it a number of opportunities. The fluid set changes are often accompanied by music and singing (much of which is richly provided by Stephen Skybell, who plays Father Francis), and there's enough dancing (choreographed by Jane Comfort) to make this Much Ado often feel very much like a musical.
What Esbjornson can't fix - and it seems he never seriously tries - is the disparity between the Beatrice-Benedick relationship, and the show's other romantic plot. The romance - between Hero (here played by Elisabeth Waterston) and Claudio (Lorenzo Pisoni), which is thrown into turmoil by Don John (Sean Patrick Thomas), the illegitimate brother of the Prince Don Pedro (Peter Francis James) - frequently is lost in the shadow of Beatrice and Benedick, and that happens here as well.
Pisoni, to his credit, gives a highly appealing performance in his somewhat thankless role, and Sam Waterston - Elisabeth's real-life father - lends some enchanting paternal gravitas to his role as Hero's father, Leonato. Brian Murray is also on hand to play Dogberry, the inspector who uncovers Don John's plot, and delivers the kind of confused, blustery performance he does better than anyone. The performers are all aided by Jess Goldstein's beautiful costumes, Michael Chybowski's effective lighting, and Christine Jones's attractive set, which summons up an Italian town square and palazzo in and around which most of the action takes place.
The production's most problematic element is its Beatrice, Kristen Johnston. An actress capable of delivering performances dripping with acerbic bite or canny seductiveness (she exhibited both qualities in last season's Aunt Dan and Lemon), Johnston is superb in depicting Beatrice's hard-hearted unwillingness in the play's earlier scenes. But when the transformation to lover is required, hers is far less convincing than Smits's. She's not aided by some stilted staging in the scene where her friends (played by Jayne Houdyshell and Laura Kai Chen) plant the idea of Benedick's attraction to her, but she should make more connections here, and throughout the play, than she does.
This also renders the ever-central Beatrice and Benedick pairing less penetrating and funny than it can be. Johnston and Smits do well when hurling barbs at each other, but much of the rest of the time, their burgeoning romance is seldom convincing. The production's final visual effect finds real fireworks blazing up behind the two performers, intended to represent the sparks the two characters have finally allowed to catch fire.
Johnston's performance, and much of the production as a whole, would benefit from a few more sparks of the dramatic, rather than the literal, kind. Smits, however, seems capable of lighting up the Delacorte Theater - and quite a bit more of New York - all by himself.
The Public Theater - Shakespeare in Central Park