They call Measure for Measure a “problem play,” I begin to think, in the same sense in which a recalcitrant infant is a “problem child.” It is not a “good” play; it doesn’t behave the way you want it to. As with such children, its misbehavior is in some respects its principal attraction: Nobody’s really comfortable around it, but to hate it is to confess your fascination with it. The action works out neatly but wrongly, somehow; the characters’ reactions at each point feel true to human nature, but though Shakespeare’s poetry and psychology are always on the mark here, he somehow failed to get his third duck, morality, to stay in a row with them. Too often, the play’s equivocating views feel like attempts to placate various segments of the audience; the elaborate insistence of its ending, which for modern theatergoers contains the most repugnant material, suggests steps in a prescribed ritual almost as arcane as the Masonic rites that lie behind The Magic Flute.
In that impossible final scene, Isabella must forgive Angelo, who intended to rape her and who she still believes has murdered her brother. Worse, she must forsake her chosen vocation to marry the Duke, who has lied to her (brutally about Claudio’s death), tricked her into a public humiliation, and committed blasphemy by hearing confessions while disguised as a priest. Engaged in by anyone other than a head of state, these were serious offenses, some of them punishable with torture. Small wonder that many modern critics have drawn a parallel between the Duke’s shady activities and those he condemns: The fake priest who arranges Mariana’s entrapment of Angelo is in no position to sneer at bawds. Critical speculation has made the Duke everything from a mouthpiece for the English throne (his distaste for crowds parallels James I’s) to an alienated, manipulative sociopath, who needs a mariage blanc with Isabella to conceal his homosexuality (accused of womanizing, he claims he’s “not inclined that way”).
Productions of Measure for Measure fall into two categories: those that try to solve the play’s problem and those content merely to state it. Mary Zimmerman’s version, the least cluttered of the four I’ve seen in Central Park over the decades, falls into the second category. It isn’t much of a production—the absence of clutter is often matched by an absence of emotional depth and of vision—but Shakespeare’s words will carry a lot of burdens for a director wise enough to stay out of their way, and Zimmerman’s lack of fancy frills is coupled with a refreshing lack of directorial self-aggrandizement. There is no elaborate physical business, little foolery with irrelevant props, no horde of gesticulating extras, no coy updating or arrogant contradicting of the text. The set is a framework of bare steel girders; the lush romantic music, heard only at breaks in the action, seems to rebuke it. The costumes are in the now familiar mode of vaguely contemporary clothes modified by a Victorian look and Elizabethan touches. Except for the red velvet suit sported by Joe Morton as the Duke, and the rows of fake gardenias that line the stage floor to celebrate his return, it all looks rather drab, but the visual drabness, like the uninflected staging, is enough to let the lines do their work.
After that, how the spectators read the play is all in the actors’ hands, a test of whose viewpoint can capture their attention most strongly. Played with authentically Shakespearean dice, this game might be exciting. Regrettably, the Public’s fondness for media stars has loaded the drama’s upper reaches with the weightier modern kind that barely roll at all. Either from their own limitations or Zimmerman’s noncommittal approach, Billy Crudup and Sanaa Lathan, this production’s Angelo and Isabella, are the least interesting and least believable I’ve ever seen. Crudup, seeming preposterously young, can’t even find a suitable body language for the role; he gangles and slouches like someone who’d rather be hanging out at the malt shop than imposing his moral principles on others. Lathan, at least, has some dignity, and, in the last few scenes, lets the anguish of Isabella’s situation catch up with her; what she can’t do is tune her feelings to her lines, which she recites in a metrically rigid singsong so dislocated from her movements as to seem prerecorded. Daniel Pino’s Claudio may be overwrought by comparison, but at least you feel he’s living through the play’s emotional events line by line.
Flanked by such an Angelo and Isabella, no Duke could do more than hold his ground, but Joe Morton makes that ground seem solid indeed. Stuck with all of the script’s dubious pieties and sagacities, he speaks them in a firm, lucid, impartial tone, strong in presence but devoid—deliberately, I imagine—of personality, making the role an Elizabethan infomercial. While this puts an added damper on the main plot, Morton’s gray clarity makes him a perfect counterbalance to the subplot’s low comedians, who as a group come off better here than in any Measure for Measure I can remember. It’s not that the individual performances are so earth-shattering, but that taken together, they fulfill this aspect of the play perfectly—again, in part, because Zimmerman has declined to read anything into the roles but opportunities for clowns.
John Pankow’s Lucio, lounging lewdly and jabbering a blue streak as he snuffles coke from a silver spoon, is the greatest success among them, a raucously funny and glitteringly varied reading of what can be the play’s most tiresome role. Nearly as droll is the Pompey of Christopher Evan Welch, an actor not normally cast as a low-class pimp: Amish-bearded and bug-eyed, he flaps about in his shapeless raincoat and fire-engine red fisherman’s hat as if he’d worn them for decades on the burlesque circuit. Tom Aulino’s Elbow, a yelping Chihuahua in NYPD blue, is goofily right, and even Daniel Pearce’s fog-brained Froth gets a laugh. On the serious side, Zimmerman gets two strong, graceful supporting performances from Felicity Jones (Mariana) and Christopher Donahue (Provost).
All in all, low vice wins the day, though it’s hard to guess how Zimmerman’s test would have worked on the public with high virtue better cast. Not that she could have solved the problem either way: The Duke may behave like Lucio and Pompey, but he agrees with Angelo; his only objection is that the latter’s practice doesn’t measure up to his own principles. Could Shakespeare really have believed that vice required suppression, so long as the suppressors were tempered by mercy and policed against hypocrisy? It’s hard to imagine him crusading for john squads, antiporn legislation, decency commissions, the death penalty. But if that isn’t what he believed, trying to parse out his actual views is what keeps Measure for Measure, that obstinately misbehaving play, a problem.
Harry B. Smith, master hack of over 300 operetta scripts, left us innumerable dramaturgical problems, few of which matter today because the composers who animated them have mostly faded from our collective memory. But Smith was there at the pivotal moment when operetta became musical comedy, in 1914, providing a nonsensical plot and a cracker barrel’s worth of now decrepit topical jokes for a young composer-lyricist named Irving Berlin, fresh from a decade of success in Tin Pan Alley. Because the show starred a chic dance team, Vernon and Irene Castle, they titled it Watch Your Step!—though Berlin typically displayed his puckish attitude by making the title song a paean to streetcar conductors (and “the children that they bring up/on the nickel they forget to ring up”).
The period’s loosely built, performer-driven shows tended to have their scores doctored by the stars’ pet songwriters. Berlin was powerful enough to modify but not transform this system; over its run, the show accrued a pile of additional Berlin songs. The result leaves restorers a plethora of riches, including, in a vaudeville-house sequence, parodies of all the era’s pop genres, plus a giant opera spoof that puts Gounod and Verdi hilariously through the ragtime mill. Under Mark Hartman’s snappy musical direction, the work’s concert staging by Musicals Tonight! uses 22 of these Berlin gems, most virtually unknown. The performance, staged by Thomas Mills, is brisk and acceptable—a step up from the organization’s usual just-getting-through-it-alive mode. And the songs—spunky, sparkling, and sophisticatedly self-aware—seem fresher and brasher than anything Broadway’s offered in the 87 years since they were first sung.