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The Comedy of Errors

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If ever William Shakespeare wrote a romp, The Comedy of Errors is it. One of the Bard's earliest plays and by far his shortest, it's fueled by youth and brevity that, when applied to the requisite desperation, signal a skyrocketing farce. But dealing as it does with two sets of identical twins who somehow collide (both figuratively and literally) in the city of Ephesus, it demands as much effervescence as intensity. That, above all else, is what is missing in Daniel Sullivan's new production of the play for The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Watching Sullivan's take, in fact, may leave you wondering for long stretches of time whether laughs were the primary motivation at all. It certainly doesn't seem so at first, with a 1940s setting that inspires a lot of spirited but disconnected pre-show dancing to Big Band hits (the high-swinging choreography for six leggy ensemble members is by Mimi Lieber) and a Duke who has trouble convincing us of his interest in upholding the rule of law, given that he's played by Skipp Sudduth as an Italian-American crime boss.

So when Syracuse, New York, merchant Egeon (an understated Jonathan Hadary) arrives in town and is threatened with death, the bite is already lacking. When, in explaining how he lost his wife, one son, and that son's attendant during a catastrophic shipwreck, he pulls an entire mast out of his suitcase, chuckles are indeed invoked, but so is an aura of magic that this rigorously earthbound tale does not easily support. Already the messages are more mixed up than Egeon's home life.

It's but a matter of time until that confusion spreads, with of course the son, Antipholous, and the servant, Dromio, he rescued appearing and being constantly mistaken for their brothers, who coincidentally both also live in Ephesus and are also named Antipholous and Dromio. (Moreso than most of Shakespeare's works, this is one it's best not to think about too much.) Naturally the native duo has their own entanglements—Antipholous is married to Adriana and enmeshed in some complex business transactions, Dromio is romancing a spherical serving girl—that set up the myriad juicy complications to come.

In theory, at any rate. But aside from that dancing, which also parades through the between-scene transitions and makes the most of Toni-Leslie James's superbly stylish costumes, movement throughout the evening is restrained at best and lethargic at worst. Despite running less than 90 minutes without an intermission, this Comedy of Errors is more sedate and sluggish than appropriately chaotic.

Some of this is attributable to changes in the text that shift the weight around in many of the wrong places. (It's not clear, for example, why the Courtesan, whom Antipholous of Ephesus turns to for revenge when he believes his wife is betraying him, sings "Sigh No More" from Much Ado About Nothing as a strip-tease number.) And the simultaneously cartoonish and leaden set (by John Lee Beatty), which renders the scenery on a trio of bulky revolving towers before a backdrop that cuts off the usually freeing view of Central Park beyond the stage, certainly doesn't help.

But these missteps suggest that the greater problem is that Sullivan does not feel for the material, and thus can't impart to it the buoyancy it requires. The scenes that land most readily are the more dramatic ones early on, treating recognizable human concerns, particularly between Adriana, her sister Luciana, and some Antipholous-Dromio combination. But even in advancing the story there's inconsistency: When a police officer (Reed Campbell) trying to sort through the madness arrests one Antipholous for breach of contract, his sniffling, bumbling demeanor keeps you from accepting this key plot point. Farce that isn't urgent isn't funny, and urgency is just not on offer.

At least the performers work hard. Emily Bergl brings a real poignancy and longing to Adriana, a role that can easily get lost in the shuffle. As Luciana, who unwittingly competes with her sister for the wrong Antipholous's affection, Heidi Schreck tends toward the stiff and shrill, but the pain she projects is real. De'Adre Aziza strains as the courtesan, but Robert Creighton as the put-upon goldsmith and Becky Ann Baker as the secret-keeping Abbess capture a more fragrant air of serious-minded silliness.

Maintaining that atmosphere throughout is a challenge given Sullivan's most questionable casting choice. There is precedent for having one actor play both Antipholouses and another play both Dromios, but pulling it off, especially in the frantic scenes ramping up to the finale, requires a deft touch and a comedic vision (and, preferably, a tiny stage that simplifies super-quick crosses) that are not on display here. Being unable to progress instantly from one scene to another because the actors are running to get into position sabotages the most obvious opportunity for speed and levity. And reassigning lines so that only one character speaks per scene in which he appears further dilutes the impact of having twins at all—let alone two sets of them.

Though Hamish Linklater beautifully distinguishes one Antipholous from another, in physicality and voice alike, he is rarely funny as either. His stolid, straight-man take makes sense for the text in isolation, but the actor more than the character seems forever at odds with the gallery of Technicolor crazies that surround him. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, as the Dromios, integrates much more readily, while still keeping clear the lines of demarcation between each of them.

Ferguson, who's best known for his recent stint on the TV show Modern Family but is fully a creature of the stage, is responsible for the most sustained periods of amusement and also, in its closing seconds, its most palpable pathos. He's the only one who hints, in both body and word, that dichotomous creations not only can coexist, but must, if true spiritual synthesis is to occur. In short, he shows that man doesn't always have to be at war with itself. That's not something that's at all clear from the rest of this Comedy of Errors.

The Comedy of Errors
Through June 30
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets to The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park are FREE and are distributed, two per person (age 5+) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park beginning at 12:00 p.m. on the day of each performance. As in the past years, the Virtual Ticketing system for free tickets will be available at on the day of the show. In order to allow as many different people as possible to attend Free Shakespeare in the Park this summer, visitors will be limited to receiving free tickets to two performances only of each production. There will continue to be a separate line for accessible tickets for senior citizens (65+) and patrons with disabilities. After the final ticket is distributed for each day's performance, visitors who did not obtain a ticket may begin to form a stand-by line. The Public Theater staff will begin to monitor this line, starting at 6:30 p.m. Pending availability, free stand-by tickets will be distributed, one per person.

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