Much Ado About Nothing is a slippery play for a director to try to locate in time. Written almost entirely in antic, comparatively relaxed prose and, in its own day, set in the present, the play — especially the “merry war” of wit between its protagonists, Beatrice and Benedick — still feels modern to our ears. At the same time, its plot is built on the creaky old question of a woman’s virginity. The triple-entendre title includes its own vagina joke, and it’s hard to get around the fact that the conflict turns on not simply whether the innocent ingénue cheated on her jealous fiancé but whether she is, as all unwed ladies should be, “as chaste as is the bud ere it be blown.” Director Kenny Leon’s intermittently enjoyable production presented by Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte doesn’t exactly tackle the play’s extant issues. Instead, it plays them straight and mostly breezy in a world that’s so fashionably contemporary that it throws the story’s fixation on spotless womanly virtue into strange relief. Leon also bookends the play with sequences that are clearly meant to add political heft but that feel at once heavy-handed and vague, solemnly dragging down the naturally buoyant material they’ve been attached to.
Strictly speaking, Leon’s Much Ado takes place not in the present but in the very near future. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has decked out the Delacorte stage with a manicured lawn and a big lavish house of the Better Homes and Gardens variety, with STACEY ABRAMS 2020 banners affixed prominently to the outer walls. We’re in Georgia (so the security-system signs on the lawn tell us), and the text has been somewhat clunkily stripped of all its Italian place names — except Aragon. It turns out Aragon is also a city in the Peach State, so — in a move that’s either cute or literal-minded depending on your taste — Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) still gets to be from there. What Don Pedro and his followers are, though, is up for debate. They’re not soldiers in the conventional sense. Dressed in dark-red, high-fashion, semi-sci-fi uniforms by costume designer Emilio Sosa, armed with long knives, and carrying banners with slogans like HATE IS NOT A FAMILY VALUE, they march into the front yard of the wealthy Leonato (Chuck Cooper) like the Salvation Army meets Battlestar Galactica. It seems that in this Much Ado’s version of next year, America is in fact at war with itself, with civilian militias holding the line against what are presumably the Trumpian forces of evil.
It’s not that the country we’re all stuck in today isn’t a fraught and dangerous place — especially and continuously so for black people, who make up this Much Ado’s cast. But the circumstances Leon lays out for his production give the play an awkward sense of being about something it’s not really about. Instead of getting into the troubling nitty-gritty of the story’s actual politics, which are all about sex and gender, this production appends a hazy, looming resistance politics of its own. And even though the compelling Danielle Brooks — as a wily, vigorous Beatrice — sounds great singing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” there’s a sense that no matter how many conceptual gestures Leon adds to the text, the play won’t quite serve his turn. It’s like a corkscrew being used as a hammer.
Meanwhile, inside the production’s earnest if shaky frame, the story’s intrigues play out dependably enough, though often without full-fledged hilarity. Leon doesn’t take great care with the music of the text — key words and natural punch lines tend to fall away, ideas blend together, and the meticulous turns and extremes of feeling are often flattened out — but he’s working with solid, appealing actors who consistently deliver the play’s vitality, if not its every nuance. Brooks and Grantham Coleman make a lively, endearing pair as Beatrice and Benedick, the sparring once-and-future lovers who give Much Ado its heart and its brains, while Beatrice’s ill-used cousin Hero (Margaret Odette) and her hotheaded fiancé, Claudio (Jeremie Harris), provide the bone structure. Coleman makes the most of Benedick’s gulling scene — in which Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato stage a conversation to convince the confirmed bachelor that Beatrice loves him — and he pops in and out of hedges and squeezes frantically behind columns with appropriately absurd comic brio. Brooks too has a sturdy, mischievous touch with the play’s comedy, though she shines brightest in its most dramatic scene, Beatrice’s furious reaction to Claudio’s brutal shaming of Hero. “O, God, that I were a man! I could eat his heart in the marketplace,” Brooks howls, and the response in the audience is viscerally audible. It still stings to hear Beatrice’s blistering assessment of male honor — “He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it!” — and Brooks brings laser focus and painful weight to the character’s justified rage.
Overall, Leon seems more comfortable when things turn serious. He gets the best acting out of Harris and the nimble, dignified Cooper when the plot swings toward tragedy but proves less effective in helping his actors zero in on the play’s humor. He tends to go shticky — as with Leonato’s low-stakes, nudgy-winky approach to the plot to bring Hero and Claudio back together — rather than mining the language to find the laughs. Lateefah Holder as a school-mistress–y version of the malapropping constable Dogberry and her trio of bumbling watchmen aren’t exactly a flop, but they’re not genuinely hilarious either, which they should be. And as both Dogberry’s none-too-bright lieutenant Verges and Leonato’s doddering brother Antonio, Erik LaRay Harvey is playing blatant cartoons that put him at a distracting distance from his fellow actors. As the show’s “plain-dealing villain” — Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John — Hubert Point-Du Jour feels stuck somewhere between genres. He tends to rush through his thoughts like an actor who’s not quite certain how light or heavy his touch should be.
It’s a measure of the company’s big-hearted energy and of the play’s persistent delights that, despite its odd quirks and remnants, this Much Ado stays afloat. Brooks and Coleman’s chemistry is largely responsible. Like their fellow characters, we can’t help wanting Beatrice and Benedick to shut up and kiss already. Well, not to shut up — but definitely to kiss, and then to keep talking. Their levity and their life force are what sustain us. In a play about nothing, these wry, wise wits are something indeed.
Much Ado About Nothing is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 23.