In This Merchant All That Glistens Is Gold: The Merchant of Venice, Elf and The Pee-Wee Herman Show

The audience provides two rounds of star applause during the Public Theater’s wonderful production of The Merchant of Venice, which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre Saturday night after a praised run in Central Park over the summer.

One is for Al Pacino, who gets his on his entrance, because he is Al Pacino. The other is for the Broadway vet Charles Kimbrough (he was the Cronkitean anchor Jim Dial on Murphy Brown), who is applauded on his exit, after a deliciously scene-stealing turn as the Prince of Aragon, a deaf and daffy elderly suitor for Portia, the orphaned heiress whose availability sends the love-struck and profligate Venetian aristocrat Bassanio to his wealthy but illiquid patron Antonio for money; Antonio to the Jewish moneylender Shylock for a loan; and the entire three-hour enterprise in motion.

Lily Rabe, who plays that orphaned heiress, makes her own entrance grandly but quietly, in a bright-red gown, nestled upon a wrought-iron stairway as it rotates toward the front of the stage. It’s a bit unfair, this lack of applause, because Ms. Rabe-not the movie celebrity whose face peers up from the Playbill-is the shining star of this show.

Ms. Rabe’s portrayal is mesmerizing. The young actress is of course beautiful, poised and confident, but there’s more. She displays an inner intelligence and certainty even at moments when the play allows Portia to be more frivolous, and she forcefully holds her own on the stage, even opposite Mr. Pacino, when Portia, disguised as a young jurist, faces off with Shylock and outwits him, depriving the moneylender his pound of flesh.

Mr. Pacino has improved since the summer; he is now, as then, compulsively watchable, but he seems to have scaled down his mannerisms for the smaller venue. His Shylock is a decent man who’s been insulted, mocked, degraded, spat upon his entire life-Antonio is reluctant to shake his hand, even in asking him for a loan-and had his daughter stolen from him. He goes a little bit mad when finally presented with a chance for a revenge. His forced baptism is played not as a triumph but instead as a final insult, which Shylock bears defiantly. He returns the yarmulke to his head even as he climbs from the baptismal font.

Daniel Sullivan’s production is lovely, sensitive, moving and accessible. It has been well served by the move from the park’s sprawling Delacorte to the snugger confines of the Broadhurst. He uses the same rotating wrought-iron contraption (by Mark Wenland) as the main set piece, on an otherwise empty stage-no curtains or scrims or flats. It’s simultaneously simple and grand as it’s pulled into various configurations to suggest a stock exchange, offices, houses and, eventually, a courtroom. Kenneth Posner’s lighting of the actors is stark and dramatic, but he also sometimes uses a bit of colored light on the white upstage wall, warming the tone and creating a pretty stage picture.

Mr. Sullivan has also succeeded in making the actors’ performances more unified in this production.

This is mostly because of some cast changes. Jesse Tyler Ferguson was entertaining as Launcelot Globbo, the faithless and funny servant to Shylock and then Bassanio, but he milked the part, making too much of a small character. Christopher Fitzgerald, so excellent last year as Og in Finian’s Rainbow, now gives the role a subtle, puckish charm. And David Harbour, a more traditional leading-man type, has replaced the prickly and effete Hamish Linklater as Bassanio, giving a performance that is perhaps less noticeable but also more contextual; Mr. Harbour’s Bassanio is a more obvious suitor to Portia, and there’s less of a homosexual undertone to his intense friendship with Antonio.

Byron Jennings is once again an upstanding Antonio, an upright, self-righteous nobleman, and Jesse L. Martin is once again the swaggering Gratiano, part of Bassanio’s aristocratic entourage. The only actor from the park I missed was Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who infused Nerissa, Portia’s lady-in-waiting, with a wonderfully knowing edge, just a hint of snark. Marsha Stephanie Blake, now playing Nerissa, is perfectly fine, but lacks that extra texture.

Opening night for The Merchant of Venice was delayed a week, after Ms. Rabe briefly withdrew from performances due to a family emergency. Her mother-the actress Jill Clayburgh-died after a long illness on Friday, Nov. 5. Ms. Rabe was back at the Broadhurst the next night, and the show opened a week later. The show must go on, Ms. Rabe knows. That it did, so wonderfully, is a great tribute to her late mother.

 

I NEVER SAW the 2003 movie Elf, but I know it’s a Will Ferrell vehicle, so I can guess what happens: A dim-witted fellow (a local-news anchor, or a Nascar driver, or an elf) engages in an inherently ridiculous activity (in this case, elfery), takes that activity very seriously and ultimately achieves a happy ending. I also know it must have been at least reasonably funny; it earned $220 million worldwide.

That number is no doubt what led Warner Bros. to create the stage version of Elf, which opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre Sunday night for a limited, holiday-season run. The company hired a sprawling and talented creative team-the book is by Thomas Meehan, who wrote Annie and The Producers, and Bob Martin, who wrote The Drowsy Chaperone; the music and lyrics are by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, who did the same for The Wedding Singer; and it’s directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who did both for The Drowsy Chaperone and choreographed Spamalot-and engaged them in the inherently ridiculous activity of creating a Broadway musical. But here there’s no happy result.

This Christmas story-elf discovers he’s human, goes to New York to find his dad, brings Christmas spirit to the heathens-is oddly joyless. Everything about the story is contrived and feels it, not just the silly parts. The long-lost dad is a publishing executive who must work late on Christmas Eve to deliver the perfect Christmas story. (Since when do books get published overnight? Since when do people in publishing work late? Since when is a New York publishing office staffed entirely with gentiles?) A key plot point is how hard it is to get a table at the Tavern on the Green (which, in fairness, it currently is; the place is closed).

Elf‘s tone can shift wildly, from naïve kids’ humor to knowingly grown-up material. Many of the jokes don’t land, whether dated (“Who’s Billy Crystal? He sounds magical!”) or just awkward, like Santa’s line when he rushes in late for Act II (“Sorry, sorry, just made a quick trip to the cocoa cart, if you know what I mean,” which is either scatological or nonsensical but either way not funny).

Everything seems flat, except a few production numbers and the show’s one redeeming feature: Its star, Sebastian Arcelus, who manages to be the only one onstage having the consistently high-energy good time a show like this would seem to require. It’s a Christmas miracle.

 

MEANTIME, AT THE Pee-wee Herman Show, which opened last week as the inaugural tenant of the newly rechristened Stephen Sondheim Theatre, everyone—both onstage and off it—is having an awul lot of fun.

Paul Reubens first developed his man-child alter-ego as a member of L.A.’s Groundlings comedy troupe three decades ago. His live Pee-wee Herman Show was a cult hit in 1981, which led to the HBO special and then the CBS Saturday-morning kids’ show. This new Pee-wee Herman Show is an update of that original performance—a show for adults, remember, not for kids—with elements from the TV show included, too.

The set looks the same, too, a multicolored, off-kilter living room. As the curtain goes up, the crowd goes crazy for it. “That’s just like it,” my date, a fan since childhood, whispered reverently amid the applause. Everything is just like it, and that’s the charm: It’s the same Pee-wee shtick people remember from their childhoods, and the audience members eat it up.

Written by Mr. Reubens and Bill Steinkeller, with additional material by John Paragon, and directed by Alex Timbers, whose own Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is running on the other side of Times Square, this Pee-wee Show is simultaneously fresh and nostalgic, both inventive and predictable. It gives theatergoers—mostly 30-somethings who enjoyed the TV show as kids and at the Sondheim are enjoying adult memories of their childhoods and the happy influence of adult beverages—exactly what they they want, and it gets them to squeal with newfound excitement each time a new bit of the past is revealed.

There’s not much of a story, but no one’s at this show for a plot. Instead, we get Miss Yvonne and Mailman Mike and Cowboy Curtis and Globey and Chairry and Conky and the dance and the catchphrases and everything else. I won’t give away the secret word, but it rhymes with pun, and everyone revels in it.

But be warned: The theater is kept at near-arctic temperatures, apparently to keep Mr. Reubens from sweating through his iconic gray suit and white face makeup. A trip down memory lane is nice, but it can also begin to drag, especially when you’ve got your collar turned up, your hands buried in your pockets, and you can no longer feel your toes.

 

editorial@observer.com

 

In This Merchant All That Glistens Is Gold: The Merchant of Venice, Elf and The Pee-Wee Herman Show