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Theater Review: If You Transfer The Merchant of Venice, Does It Not Bleed?

Lily Rabe as Portia, Al Pacino as Shylock and Byron Jennings as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare, despite an entrepreneurial bent, clearly had zero appreciation for economics. "We were Christians enough before, e'en as many as could well live, one by another," complains the prickly houseboy Launcelot Gobbo (Christopher Fitzgerald) to his mistress Jessica (Heather Lind), daughter of the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino), in The Merchant of Venice. Much against her father's wishes, Jessica has eloped with a Gentile, Lorenzo (Seth Numrich), and converted to Christianity. Tut-tuts Launcelot, "This making of Christians will raise the price of pork." Silly fool: Expanding the trayf consumer base to newly assimilated "infidels" should actually drive down per-unit costs and prices, provided production can be multiplied in kind—and voila! Everybody wins! The market and the melting-pot march hand in hand to happy homogeneity! Any profit-minded Venetian worth his salario ought to grasp that.

Ah, but then again, re-scaling any enterprise (mercantile, hegemonic, or theatrical) has its risks, as director Daniel Sullivan can surely attest: In transfiguring his reflective, near-perfect Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice for a lucrative Broadway run, he's taken no big gambles, just a bunch of small ones. Some of these pay off richly; others go quietly bust, and occasionally threaten malaise. The question that hangs over the show is a familiar one, to directors and presidents both: Should I have done more? Or less? Or is this the best anyone could hope for, given the situation?

It's certainly no total loss. This Merchant is still a bewitching piece of theater, and perhaps has even more to say about the sinuous interdependency of faithless, nationless money and atavist, nativist race-hate now, in post-Mosquegate New York, than it did last summer. Sullivan has selected a tragedy-of-Shylock approach to Shakespeare's most uncomfortably impolitic (and, yes, patently racist) play: Pacino's moneylender is still the antagonist, but hardly a villain. His relentless demand for that famous pound of flesh from Antonio (Byron Jennings), here a repressed, righteous bigot, comes across not as as demonic revenge, but as the last stand of a proud, principled man pushed too far by a boorish and predatory majority. His Jewishness is merely a tag of Otherness: He could be a Copt in modern Baghdad or a Muslim in Rutherford County, Tennessee. And let's not forget: His self-loathing daughter has just absconded with much of his household wealth, delivering into the grubby hands of her new husband's Gentile looter-gang. Pacino is the perfect vessel for this approach, with his quick fury, his hectoring brays, and his dangerous pools of silent rage and bitter amusement. Pacino's Shylock is small and ferocious and smart and doomed, a man turned monster by an ugly world.

The appointed Beowulf to this pitiable Grendel is Portia (Lily Rabe), a woman he doesn't even know. An heiress of unimaginable wealth, Portia loves Bassanio (David Harbour), bosom friend to Antonio and the reason why the debt to Shylock exists. Bassanio's a bit of a hustler, you see, sweet-natured as he is. He needs cash to woo Portia, and who better to shake it from than his old sugar daddy? The suggestion of Bassanio's homoerotic history with Antonio is even heavier here than it was in the Park, when Hamish Linklater played the ever-angling, perpetually broke bachelor. (Personally, I enjoyed Linklater's metrosexual-mooch take on Bassanio, but the always-great Harbour is a bit more of a top, which soups up his chemistry with Portia—and Antonio—considerably.) Rabe's Portia is a kind of aristocrat-goddess, capable of overleaping certain social norms to set others aright: In the play's most famous scene, she dons the garb of a young male lawyer to plead Antonio's case before the Duke, and arrives at the legal loophole that unmakes Shylock, saves Antonio, and bails out Venice's morally overleveraged Christian hierarchy, all in one superheroic deus ex logica. Portia's no simple role. Before the trial, she spends most of the play back on her heels, being wooed by a procession of ridiculous suitors. But Rabe, an actress of superb poise and brilliant emotional economy, taps into the character's impatience, her almost debilitating insight into absurdity, and the insistent physical passions that vie with her towering intellect: This Portia knows what Bassanio is, from the get-go, and will have him anyway, for her pleasure, for her pains. What you buy can break you—she gets that. "Since you are dear bought," she tells Bassanio, "I will love you dear,"

These key performances are all intact from last summer; the great, structural beams of Sullivan's production are all firmly in place. But a lot of smaller pieces have been smashed in the move; key moments, including the once-haunting conclusion, dangle mystifyingly. Numrich's new Lorenzo is a gentler bloke than Bill Heck's more loutish version. His relationship with Jessica now plays as the tender unsteadiness of newlyweds, not as the frightening transactional rape Sullivan staged at the Delacorte. This has a devastating effect on the play's epilogue, which was written as an eleventh-hour return to light-comedy, but which Sullivan has reinterpreted as an ominous coda, full of fatal regrets that can't be bought off or kissed away. The creepy pathology at the heart of Lorenzo and Jessica's unhappy union was the key to making this slant work. Without it, we're simply watching a bunch of sighing young yuppies, aridly dissatisfied, sitting around a reflecting pool--hell, we might as well adjourn to the local Marriott. At least it's better lit: Kenneth Posner's lighting design occasionally verges on shadow-puppetry, turning Mark Wendland's imposing banker's cage of a set into a flickering zoetrope. (In general, it feels like Sullivan's forgotten to recast the most important part of all: the park. His mise en scène is sodden with a foreboding darkness that often looks suspiciously like scenic emptiness.) This transfer is dear bought, that's for sure. But even somewhat less than intact, The Merchant of Venice is still of dear worth. Which is fortunate, thou goodly consumer, given how much you're probably paying.

At the Broadhurst Theatre through January 9.

Photo: Joan Marcus