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Romeo and Juilet

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Lauren Ambrose and Oscar Isaac
Photo by Michal Daniel.

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is quite possibly the greatest guy play that's ever masqueraded as chick lit. The untraceable family grudges, brutal gang warfare, and the quick escapes and near misses that send things hurtling toward tragedy (and an arguably hopeful resolution) wouldn't be out of place in most action films' romantic subplots. But that tale about two at-odds clans united only by the titular characters' deaths seems forever at war with the comparatively few (albeit sumptuously written) love scenes particularizing their polarizing conflict.

One suspects the battle has lasted so long, and will doubtlessly continue for centuries more, because of productions like Michael Greif's, which kicks off The Public Theater's season of Shakespeare in the Park. Two incredibly bewitching and headily matched performers, Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose, have united to give a tender, erotic charge to Romeo and Juliet, while the contentious context for their affair has been left on the stage of the open-air Delacorte Theater to shrivel in the sun.

Because both roles are frequently cast older than their mid-teens ages (to a minor emotional and historical detriment), it's worth only passing mention that neither Isaac nor Ambrose is believable as an adolescent. Yet each captures the starry-eyed innocence of a young adult who, for reasons likely pertaining to their quibbling broods, has yet to experience spiritual or physical communion with someone else on the most intimate level. And, of course, they're both attractive enough to stop traffic on the bustling Verona streets where the story is set.

They find Romeo and Juliet's inner sexiness, too, which is far more important. Isaac highlights in his Romeo the aimless musician who's been waiting his whole life for his gift to be inspired, and who transforms from wistful sigher to full-out life liver the instant he beholds Juliet's beauty at her parents' masked ball. Ambrose's Juliet is the quiet type, who's probably never strung together a dozen words until Romeo appeared, and who afterwards can't stop the poetry from flowing.

Lauren Ambrose and Oscar Isaac
Photo by Michal Daniel.

Though both have been semi-regular New York fixtures as of late, Isaac in the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Delacorte two years ago and Beauty of the Father at MTC and Ambrose in Lincoln Center Theater's Awake and Sing!, neither has heretofore revealed such a compelling command of language. Both have a firm grasp on Shakespeare's meanings and nuances, so the scenes in which they meet - including their hushed and hurried first date on Juliet's balcony - heighten the lush atmosphere of heavenly bliss held at bay by earthbound acrimony.

Their meddling confidants - Juliet's nurse and Friar Laurence, respectively played with comic urgency and celestial abandon by Camryn Manheim and Austin Pendleton) adroitly balance with grown-up know-how the excited indiscretions of the young duo. You believe they want the seemingly impossible to work out for the best, and as long as director Greif devotes himself to Romeo and Juliet's story, you can relate.

But it's when it comes time for explaining why Romeo and Juliet are in such dire straits that Greif and the other cast members forget they're in a story larger than that of a summer romance novel. Except for an opening fight scene, in which swords, sticks, and oranges are weapons wielded with equal measure, and the touching reconciliation at evening's end, the Montague-Capulet feud is rendered in broad, unspecific strokes.

Romeo's best friend, and the prime propellant for the play's catastrophic second half, Mercutio has been reconceived as the star comic role. He's played by an uncommonly grating Christopher Evan Welch, who's gone too far in shedding the likeable Everyschlub persona he's cultivated in his recent New York appearances and made a crucial character a crude Jim Carrey knock-off. Juliet's cousin Tybalt is played with a stately but declamatory grace by Brian Tyree Henry that sucks the youthful energy out of the Capulet's side of the matter. When both Welch and Henry tilt together, as they inevitably must, sparks don't exactly fly.

Without their fevered rivalry and its disastrous outcome, the stakes in the first half of the play never seem high enough. You also lose a vital parallel consideration of the Romeo-Juliet pairing, and can't see all the ways the later generation is paying for the sins of its elders. Romeo and Juliet might be the catalysts for change, but Mercutio and Tybalt are the casualties who give another sobering human dimension: These passionate young men shouldn't have to die, either.

Greif's focus on Romeo and Juliet (which has involved a judicious trimming of the text) pays off in the production's piercing second half, when coincidence and fate more speedily guide Romeo and Juliet to their destinies. But he spends too much of the rest of his time overusing the enormous shallow pool of water that's the most notable feature of Mark Wendland's rotating set: Mercutio mercilessly splashes and slurps it, bridges cross it, and other actors trudge through it in boots, all to no noticeable avail. The performance I attended was on an unusually cool night, when the wind swept harsh chills through the audience - forcing drenched actors to endure this seems almost cruel.

Luckily, the heat returns when Isaac and Ambrose reassume center stage, bringing with them some of the most memorable scenes and speeches in English-language drama. You understand, every time they speak, how Romeo and Juliet gained its reputation as one of history's most lovely and lyrical plays. But with so much of the contrasting ugliness missing from Greif's production, you're not aware of the deeper meanings every bit as important to Romeo and Juliet when it's at its tip-top best.

Romeo and Juilet
Through July 8
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Pick up your free Shakespeare in the Park tickets on the day of the performance beginning at 1pm at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park or from 1 to 3pm at The Public Theater Box Office, 425 Lafayette Street.

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