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'Merchant of Venice' sells Pacino short

By Joseph Hurley

"The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare • Directed by Daniel Sullivan • Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater, NYC • In Repertory with "The Winter's Tale" • Through August 1, 2010

Last summer, director Daniel Sullivan performed a minor miracle in Central Park's Delacorte Theater.

He cast movie starlet Anne Hathaway in the leading role of his production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," and revealed her to be a serious actress fully capable of holding her own in the presence of seasoned pros Audra McDonald and Raul Esparza.

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This summer, Sullivan's task was to coax Al Pacino into a performance as the Jewish moneylender in "The Merchant of Venice," strong enough to stand alongside the memory of other actors who have played the role in past seasons, including George C. Scott, who played Shylock at the Delacorte in l962.

WCBS-TV, the network's local television outlet, broadcast the show, but the station found itself inundated by phone calls complaining about the play's supposed anti-Semitism. Despite the fact that many of the calls seemed to have been set up, or even read into the phone from prepared documents, the station's bosses decided to take them seriously and assigned a young writer, new to the staff, to write an essay "proving" that "The Merchant of Venice" was basically prejudice-free.

The damage, however, was done, and Shakespeare in the Park steered clear of the play for decades until Pacino was available, and Sullivan proved willing to take the difficult project on, problems or no problems attached. The results this time are mixed, despite Pacino's having successfully adjusted his natural speech patterns to accommodate the subtle demands of the role.

Now aged 70, Pacino, in his younger days, appeared effectively on stage from time to time: in Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie," and in an off-Broadway revival of David Mamet's "American Buffalo." But he's been away from the stage for years, and the passage of time shows in his present assignment. For one thing, he's on the small side, and, with Ken Posner's subdued lighting and Jess Goldstein's largely black costuming for Shylock, you may find yourself searching the stage in an effort to identify Shylock and set him apart from the mainly dark clad strollers of the Venetian byways.

Pacino's frequent stage appearances in those early days included a Broadway production of "Richard III" and a Public Theater staging of "Julius Caesar," neither of them particularly successful. Admirably, Pacino returns again and again to Shakespeare, willing to take yet another chance.

The organizing principle behind this summer's Shakespeare in Central Park was that a single company would perform both plays in rotating repertory, rather than do one play for its full schedule, close it, and then switch to the summer's second attraction. In earlier years, the Delacorte schedule went on through Labor Day, but recent seasons have mostly been somewhat curtailed.

This summer's repertory ideal hasn't worked out entirely satisfactorily. Pacino, like Lily Rabe, who is the production's Portia, is seen only in "Merchant," while Ruben Santiago Hudson is working only in "The Winter's Tale," as Leontes, under the direction of Michael Greif. The rest of the troupe will be seen in both plays.

Dan Sullivan's "Merchant" cast is generally strong, with standout work being turned in by Hamish Linklater, Jesse L. Martin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Max Wright, and Gerry Bamman.

The show is long, dark and rather airless, with little suggestion of the glistening shine of a city like Venice, so intimately associated with water. The only moisture Mark Wendland's gloomy set offers appears when a kind of manhole cover is lifted to reveal a puddle large enough to accomodate the baptism of Shylock, forced to become a reluctant Christian.