In Jack O'Brien's new production of the play at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, however, bitter isn't always better. Neither Hamish Linklater (Benedick) nor Lily Rabe (Beatrice), Shakespeare in the Park veterans both, seems entirely comfortable lobbing the acidic quips that ought to sizzle and sear before the swooning can commence. In fact, so stately, so safe, are their exchanges that you can't help but wonder whether the performers and characters alike are playing the end at the beginning: Do they, like everyone who surrounds them, already know they'll end up together?
The play, one of William Shakespeare's most effervescently enjoyable adult comedies, can only work if those initial vituperative volleys are just as believable as the warmer feelings that finally emerge. Linklater comes across as stiff and uncertain, not at all the blustery war hero who's going out of his way not to be conquered by one particular woman; his laid-back line deliveries suggest no internal confidence of any kind. Ditto Rabe, who overly lives up to the gorgeously clingy and flattering Jane Greenwood dresses she wears: Her Beatrice is always playing a role, not spitting out her deepest-held beliefs and experiences (almost all of them negative) about the male sex.
The good news is that the actors' discomfort does not extend beyond the first few scenes. By about the midpoint of the first half, when Benedick and Beatrice's friends and compatriots begin conspiring to get them together, both Linklater and Rabe have resolved their uneven portrayals into ones that are much more dramatically dazzling and comedically astute. Linklater, in particular, displays a winning, fleet-footed physicality that was sorely missing from his turn in The Comedy of Errors in the Park last summer, climbing (and falling from) a tree and weaving his way around a fence to eavesdrop on a discussion about Benedick's love life to reinforce just how giddy this reluctant romantic can really be.
And by the climax of the second half, when they've both dropped all their defenses, they're radiant examples of the transformative power of affection. Beatrice beams with an unaffected smile that's a breath-taking contrast to the furrowed brow and guttural speech Rabe uneasily deployed at the outset; and Benedick has morphed into a man who's come to realize his put-downs can no longer be more than an act, and are tinged with an ingratiating lilt of inevitability. It's superb, invisible acting that the opening minutes of the evening desperately need more of, but it's enough to ensure that this Much Ado ends up a satisfying one.
A few additional complaints could be levied against the prime movers and shakers of the subplot between Hero, the returned soldier Claudio, and the scheming Don John who's trying to spoil their union. Ismenia Mendes, Jack Cutmore-Scott, and Pedro Pascal suffice in those roles, but don't rise far above minimum effectiveness ó though, because these roles are on the thankless side to start with, that's to no huge detriment. O'Brien turns out a staging that's largely sharp and focused, its turn-of-the-20th-century Italy theme just right, but he institutes too much zany play with moving pieces of John Lee Beatty's set, which is an attractive but uncomfortably constricted villa that makes but limited use of the verdant natural backdrop.
But Kathryn Meisle is a delightful Ursula, adding some delightfully saucy, low-down class to her scenes; and John Pankow makes one of the most compelling and most restrained Dogberrys I've seen, integrating him so tightly into the story that you'll marvel at his connection to the plot even as you're snickering at his antics. John Glover and Brian Stokes Mitchell are shockingly luxurious casting for Leonato and Don Pedro, but both are so well matched with their roles that they never glow brighter than they should. Mitchell even gets a charming moment with the talented Steel Burkhardt, who's playing the musician Balthazar, in which they sing one of the songs that have been composed with a addictive, Italianate flair by David Yazbeck.
Whether their duet on "Sigh no more, ladies" will melt your heart, I can't predict. But watching Linklater and Rabe cavort about the Delacorte stage in the run-up to the finale, undertaking a remarkable flight of fancy with each other while sitting still on the stage, will certainly do the trick. Maybe their own resolves take a while, or even too long, to crack. But once they do, they, and this Much Ado About Nothing, are as irresistible as they've come to seem to each other.
Much Ado About Nothing