Dirty Rotten Downer; But Shylock Still Fascinates

The disappointing new musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, adapted from the 1988 movie about two con men in the South of France, left me cold, I’m afraid. On the other hand, everyone was roaring with laughter around me at some of the worst gags in history, and they weren’t apologetic about that.

Permit me to be candid, then, with none of my usual regrets, no disclaimers, no “ifs” and “buts,” no “if onlys.” For me, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, directed by Jack O’Brien with his customary flair for the bottom line, is a third-rate show. The corn isn’t good corn, the intended, honest bawdy is merely coarse, the deliberately tacky sets are not witty, the choreography is not sexy, the costumes are too much, the fun forced, the two lead performances over the top, the musical comedy formulaic, stale and old-fashioned.

Apart from that, it was one of the best evenings I’ve had on Broadway in a long while. In fairness, however, I must point out that other critics I’ve read (Mr. Simon, Mr. Lahr) enjoyed the show very much. Only Mr. Brantley of The Times gave it the thumbs-down, nailing it as a poor man’s Producers. A very poor man.

Praise where praise is due. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Ben on this one. Even so, we differ on the widely acclaimed performance of Norbert Leo Butz as Freddy Benson, the shlumpy scoundrel who wants to learn at the feet of John Lithgow’s pseudo-sophisticated scam artist, Lawrence Jameson. Mr. Brantley finds Mr. Butz “a criminally talented young performer.” But as I see it, he’s been allowed to run riot in a woefully indulgent way. Mugging maniacally in two particular scenes-one of them would be more than enough-Mr. Butz writhes and twitches in what appears to be an impersonation of an epileptic fit (and gets laughs).

He lacks a certain ease and light charm. He is never still, but sells every second. On the other hand, Mr. Lithgow, impersonating a Brit, oozes the kind of obvious charm no Brit possesses. Meant to be suave and urbane, the star comes over as preeningly arch and mannered. Mr. Lithgow self-consciously oversells British understatement, while Mr. Butz oversells everything.

It doesn’t make for a healthy stage partnership. Neither of them are born comics, incidentally. But look at their material! If you find the following even mildly amusing, do not pass go: “Her people are in oil.” “Crude?” “Well, she is a little pushy.”

The book is by Jeffrey Lane (best known for his work in TV, the Playbill informs us). The show being set in France is therefore an excuse, I guess, for his populist anti-French jokes. But what of his puns? “He’s a man, not an egg. We mustn’t coddle him.”

Or: “Have a little jerky.” “Do you mind? I’m trying to think.”

Or this: “I prefer to see myself as a ventriloquist.” “Which makes me what? The dummy?”

What can I say? There is a high art to good low corn. But this isn’t it. While the composer/lyricist, David Yazbek, is no Cole Porter, a man who can rhyme “Oklahoma” with “melanoma” can’t be all bad. But Mr. Yazbeck (of The Full Monty) hasn’t produced the real thing-an honestly sentimental ballad-and his pastiche numbers vary in a leaden blatancy that Mel Brooks might come up with on a bad day:

“The more I sang, the more she sung / I mean, come on, she gave me tongue.”

“A life of taste and class / With culture and sophistication pouring out my ass.”

Or: “Buy him a castle / He’ll still be an asshole.”

What with Mr. Yazbeck’s loving lyrical tributes to “milkshake enemas” and “KY Jelly on a rubber glove” (which rhymes with “love”), we have surely reached a new low. There are compensations in Joanna Gleason’s droll Muriel of Omaha, and in Sherie Rene Scott’s enjoyably deadpan bombshell, Christine Colgate of Smalltown, U.S.A. But as the title of the opening number of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels makes all too proudly clear, “Give Them What They Want.”

Searching for Shylock

Gareth Armstrong’s virtuoso performance in his 80-minute Shylock-which he also wrote-is a marvelous exploration at the little Perry Street Theater of the universally debated Jew. I’m glad he makes clear that Shylock is a rich character and not the product of an anti-Semitic playwright.

Shakespeare is a far, far better writer than that! I believe, as Mr. Armstrong does, that to impose anti-Semitism on The Merchant of Venice is to misunderstand and limit the great play. The philo-Semitism that insists that Shylock be a good man is itself a muddled form of anti-Semitism. He needn’t be “good,” only human and wronged.

Of course The Merchant of Venice was popular in Nazi Germany! So was Coriolanus. But either the greatest dramatist of all was a Jew-hating neo-Fascist, or narrow interpretations of his plays are mistaken. The plays themselves have been restaged and re-examined for 400 years precisely because their meaning is inexhaustible. Woe to the man who thinks he knows more about the world than Shakespeare!

You have only to experience Mr. Armstrong’s fine reading of Shylock’s trial scene to see how Shakespeare saw his aristocratic prosecutor, the “merciful,” “fair” Christian Portia, as innately unmerciful, the ruling elites of England as ignorant as any louts who kick you in the groin for sport, and the British upper classes as “politely” anti-Semitic, as they’ve always been.

Mr. Armstrong is a British actor-a Welshman, to be exact-and his actor’s instinctive understanding of the text has much of value to tell us. I hadn’t fully realized before that there’s a second Jew in The Merchant of Venice: Tubal-only friend of Shylock, who’s described by him as “a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe.” He has only eight lines, and Mr. Armstrong makes a banquet of them.

For those who aren’t aware of England’s triple whammy of historic contempt for the Jews, however, his other diversions will prove revelatory. England, he reminds us, was the first country to have pogroms, the first to commit a blood libel, and-in 1290-the first to expel all Jews unless they converted to Christianity. For Mr. Armstrong, Shylock ultimately becomes the Wandering Jew personified.

But he shines most in his textual analysis of Shylock, reminding us that he actually talks like a foreigner-a Jew of the ghetto to whom English is a second language. Shylock even has linguistic lapses. It’s a startling observation. Mr. Armstrong could have taken it further, however. Shakespeare’s language for Shylock is unique. There’s nothing like it in the entire canon of plays.

The outer expression of Shylock’s emotional heat and demand for justice is near rabbinical. It is highly naturalistic and Talmudic: the use of the word “and,” for example-on the one hand this, on the other hand that, and this, and this. His language makes Shylock, the disputatious Jew, flesh and blood.

If Shakespeare wished, he could have invented an exotic, glittering language for Shylock, as he did for another renowned outsider, Othello. But he grounded Shylock in reality. When Peter Hall was directing Dustin Hoffman as Shylock, I asked him about Shylock’s singularly “un-Shakespearean” way of speaking. Mr. Hall, who’s among the very best Shakespeare scholars, said he knew nothing quite like it. “He must have known a Jew!” he concluded, and reminded me that Shakespeare himself went in for a little illegal moneylending on the side, like Shylock.

Mr. Armstrong asks a number of excellent questions-except this one: Who was the Jew Shakespeare knew? He doesn’t ask it because he believes (along with various scholars) that Jews were still banned from England in Shakespeare’s day. Legally, they were. But I demure with him. There was a group of wealthy merchants who were Christianized Marranos, or crypto-Jews from Spain and Portugal, living discreetly in Elizabethan London. They were known to be Jews.

Shakespeare could have met any one of them at any time. It’s how he would have known the reality of their second language. And how, perhaps, he understood Jews not as mythic devils or cursed heirs to the Antichrist of medieval Miracle Plays, but as human beings.

That said, it’s certainly possible that Shakespeare conjured Shylock from his imagination, as Mr. Armstrong claims. But his uniqueness suggests otherwise. What’s the one place in the world that welcomes all outsiders, various dissenters, poets or perverts? The theater! My strongest hunch is that the Jew Shakespeare knew was in his own theater company.

Look at the name Bassanio. Bassanio is the suitor to Portia in The Merchant. It’s a glorious in-joke. Bassanio/Bassano. The Bassanos of Tudor England were Jews. They were a musical dynasty who first came to London as court musicians at the request of Henry VIII (a keen musician who therefore overlooked the law). Music is celebrated and played in The Merchant of Venice, symbolizing eternal harmony, not hatred. (“Such harmony is in immortal souls …. “) If I’m right, the supreme irony of the famous play is that Shakespeare’s musicians-and all the talented musicians at the court of “fair” Portia-were Jews.