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Shakespeare's `Gentlemen' Wander in Central Park: John Simon

Sept. 2 (Bloomberg) -- ``Two Gentlemen of Verona,'' a Shakespeare-based musical by Mel Shapiro, John Guare and Galt MacDermot, is back in Central Park, where it first opened in 1971.

A big hit outdoors, it transferred to Broadway and did as well indoors. It won the Tony for best musical by beating out Stephen Sondheim's superb ``Follies,'' proving that Tony voters cannot tell jug wine from champagne.

Some current reviewers are raving again, but what is good enough for the Park's nonpaying public does not justify transferring to Broadway at the current prices there. The problem stems from the extensive cutting and rewriting of the play for Joseph Papp's original multicultural extravaganza, which turned the two principal couples into Puerto Ricans and blacks, and Verona and Milan into San Juan and New York City.

The message --- in Shakespeare, a wry examination of the jarring interaction between passion and friendship -- became the shoddiest and shabbiest of homilies: Love, love, love! Everybody love everybody!

Sharpening Scissors

Now, Shakespeare was a hardheaded man of the theater and did not mind certain liberties being taken with his comedies, so long as they worked. But he would have insisted on the general purport remaining the same, and on the spectators paying at least a penny (make that a quarter today), as they did at the Globe. That might have eliminated such riffraff as the man at the Park preview who was ominously sharpening a pair of scissors during Act One, and had to be forcibly ejected in the intermission.

Like most Public Theater productions in the Park, these ``Two Gents'' require two types of reviews. By the standard of bread and circuses for the masses, you get some jaunty horseplay for a not-too- muggy summer night. And if you speak Spanish, you'll get a kick out of numerous interpolations, not to mention much lively Latino dancing sassily choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, who also directed.

The music by Galt MacDermot -- everything from calypso through R&B to operetta -- is not up to his ``Hair'' but has some delightful numbers, notably ``Night Letter'' and ``Eglamour.'' Unfortunately, even the poorer ones are reprised ad nauseam, and Guare's slapdash lyrics do not help much -- though I like the rhyme on doublets- sublets, which neatly combines the Elizabethan and the Nuyorican.

Leafy Backdrop

Martin Pakledinaz's tart costumes are part Shakespearean frolic, part Puerto Rican Day Parade. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, good throughout, is particularly fine when it alights on some of Central Park's loveliest trees, forming a background to Riccardo Hernandez's humdrum set. This does, however, have the good sense of obscuring that bosky backdrop as little as possible. And Kimberly Grigsby, wiggling in her harem pants and halter top, conducts an orchestra of irrepressible exuberance.

When it comes to performances, however, I must resort to criticism of a less demotic sort and point to more exuberance than inspiration. As the black lover, Valentine, Norm Lewis cuts a fine figure and deploys a lusty baritone, but cannot invest a basically ungrateful role with much damage control. Even so, he is infinitely preferable to the Hispanic lover, Proteus, played as a collection of repellent monkeyshines by the puny Oscar Isaac, who even when he twists himself into a pretzel remains indigestible.

Annoying Narcissism

As Julia, the emerging movie actress Rosario Dawson is so gorgeous and adorable that to ask her to sing better would border on insolence. She completely eclipses the irritating Silvia of Renee Elise Goldsberry, who, though she can sing and dance, exudes narcissism and arrogance. That even as effete a Proteus as Isaac could leave Dawson for Goldsberg makes utter hash of an already rather nonsensical enterprise.

The comic roles, not very subtly directed by Marshall, are fairly well handled nonetheless by David Costabile as Launce and John Cariani as Speed, characters described in the program as ``servant/friends'' rather than as the customary ``clownish servants'' in a crude attempt at democratization. But Megan Lawrence's Lucetta, another servant/friend, fails to bring out the darker implications of her song, ``Land of Betrayal.''

One of the better performances comes from Launce's dog, Crab, even though the elegant golden retriever Buster is miscast in a role that should be played by a scruffy mutt. (In 1971, the mongrel Phineas was better cast.) But the best performance comes from Paolo Montalban as the third lover, Eglamour. This young man can act and sing and looks terrific. He may soon shake the dust of Central Park triumphantly off his shoes.

An editor once wrote of Shakespeare's play that ``it transformed romance to a romantic comedy.'' The Public Theater version unhappily transmogrifies it into slipshod slapstick. Even so, it remains relevant. When in 1971 the Emperor sang about bringing back the boys from an unnecessary war, the allusion to Vietnam was applauded; now applicable to Iraq, it is again loudly hailed.

``Two Gentlemen of Verona'' is playing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through Sept. 11, with performances Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m. Admission is free.

Last Updated: September 2, 2005 00:02 EDT

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