We’ve known since The Merchant of Venice two summers ago that Lily Rabe is an impressive Shakespearian actor, fierce and fiery and thoroughly charismatic, enough so to hold her own against even that great kosher ham, Al Pacino as Shylock. The welcome revelation of As You Like It, this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park offering, is that Ms. Rabe isn’t just a classicist; she’s also a hell of a comedian.
As Rosalind, the heroine of Shakespeare’s very silly comedy, Ms. Rabe is, per usual, luminous and compulsively watchable, but she is also masterly with the humor in the play, double-taking, muttering asides and deploying her deep, throaty voice to milk jokes like a borscht-belt vet. It’s Carol Burnett at the Globe Theater.
This summer is the 50th anniversary of the Delacorte Theater, and to mark the occasion the Public Theater has invited the director Daniel Sullivan, who staged that Merchant two years ago among other Shakespeares in the Park, to mount this very pastoral play in New York’s most pastoral playhouse.
Mr. Sullivan has set his As You Like It, which opened last week, in the American South in the middle of the 19th century. This doesn’t quite explain the presence of squabbling dukes, but it does allow for one of the evening’s most charming additions: original bluegrass, written by Steve Martin and performed by the play’s troupe of mendicants. Mr. Sullivan’s interpretation is broadly comic, even jokey, and generally fun; together with Mr. Martin’s music, it offers a light, bouncy, toe-tapping good time.
This play needs such a light touch, because its story is so thoroughly ridiculous. I have a hobbyhorse about Shakespeare’s comedies, that if their contrived plots appeared in a modern playwright’s work we’d dismiss them out of hand. As You Like It is perhaps the worst offender: It centers on Rosalind and her love-at-first-sight suitor, Orlando, both banished to Arden Forest, where Rosalind’s father, the rightful duke, is living with his entourage after his own banishment at the hands of his younger brother, the usurping duke. It is one of those plays in which a woman puts on a hat to pass as a boy, and her true love can no longer recognize her. It is also one of those plays in which evil characters have sudden, unexpected and offstage changes of heart, so that a happy ending can be reached. (One of these is instigated by a conveniently timed, and unseen, lioness attack.) It ends with a quadruple wedding and the restoration of proper rights of inheritance. Even more happily, Mr. Sullivan, with Mr. Martin’s help, tops things off with an exuberant, bluegrass-fueled wedding party that makes a perfect conclusion to a pleasant night in the park.
The play’s pleasantness is greatly abetted by an astonishingly good cast, not just the magnificent Ms. Rabe but also a wonderful, sharply sardonic Stephen Spinella as the melancholy courtier Jacques; a clowning Oliver Platt as the deliciously conniving jester, Touchstone; and a commanding, mellifluous Andre Braugher as both the usurping duke and the banished one. The lesser-known actors are every bit as good, notably the matinee-handsome David Furr as Orlando; Will Rogers in a funny, doltish turn as a lovelorn shepherd; and Donna Lynne Champlin as the dim, buxom and bawdy goatherd Audrey.
Finally, a word about John Lee Beatty’s verdant Arden Forest set, lushly lit by Natasha Katz. It is beautiful, and it blends effortlessly into Central Park’s own flora, always peeking out from around Turtle Pond, behind the Delacorte stage. As the stockade wall of Mr. Sullivan’s Southern/ducal court pulls back to reveal this forest at the start of Act II, the Public’s vision for this golden anniversary season clicks into place: We are going into that forest, into the park, into—aha!—the woods. Triumphantly, this time—and we’ll see you again in a few weeks for that Stephen Sondheim masterpiece.
I GET THE IDEA behind David Adjmi’s 3C, and I think I love it: Take a silly, sappy 1970s sitcom, and consider all the horrible realties that, if its characters were real people in the real world, must lie beneath the saccharine sweetness of those happy misunderstandings and goofy hijinks. When the sitcom in question is Three’s Company, consider particularly the horrible and corrosive self-hatred that must fester inside Jack Tripper, a clearly gay man presented to the audience as a straight man, who proceeded to pretend to be gay so that his landlords would let him share an apartment with two women. There’s a lot there, when you think about it that way. Come and knock on that door.
Mr. Adjmi does, and then he goes rampaging through it, ransacking the place. His intriguing, weird and occasionally funny new play opened last week at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater under the direction of Jackson Gay, and it serves as a reminder that an idea can be distinct from its execution. 3C gets plenty of laughs for its twisted verisimilitudes: the set that’s immediately recognizable as an off-off-Broadway simulacrum of the Three’s Company living room, down to the arched front door; the swingin’ upstairs neighbor, here called Terry; the bickering landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Wicker; the local pub, the Rolley Pony.
But its intense, in-your-face Santa Monica dystopia quickly becomes exhausting as, character by character, those hidden darknesses are presented and insisted upon. Linda, the play’s Janet (played by Hannah Cabell), is a manic, terrifying control freak. Connie, the Chrissy/Cindy/Terry character (Anna Chlumsky), is blond and not just vacant but scarily empty. Mr. Wicker (Bill Buell) is a bully and molester; Mrs. Wicker (Kate Buddeke) is a medicated depressive. Terry (Eddie Cahill) is on coke. Only Brad, the closeted Jack character (Jake Silbermann, seeming generally confused, but also gamely and fetchingly, if gratuitously, making his entrance in the buff) is an interesting character; his is the one story that feels developed rather than simply asserted.
Twenty-odd years ago, in a Greenwich Village nightclub, I saw a show called The Real Live Brady Bunch, a faithful reenactment of an episode of the Sherwood Schwartz sitcom. (An old Times clip informs me it starred Jane Lynch and Andy Richter. Who knew?) For the finale, the cast broke into a rendition of “Go Ask Alice,” a three-minute burlesque that imagined what all those kids might have been up to in the sex-and-drugs 1970s if they hadn’t been so busy being wholesome. That coda, an alternative history of that earnest bunch, was quick, it was dirty, it was warmhearted, and it was fun. 3C is working the same territory, but it’s only dirty.
Follow Jesse Oxfeld via RSS.