They call it a “problem play,” and I agree: Normally, All’s Well That Ends Well (Delacorte Theater) gives me more problems, with fewer rewards, than almost any other Shakespeare work. Watching Helena (Annie Parisse), the doctor’s daughter and disciple, abase and humiliate herself to win the haughty, callowly cruel aristocrat Bertram (Andre Holland) is only fun if you really relish Schadenfreude. The trickery that she uses belongs in a storybook; the clear-eyed sexual awareness with which Shakespeare infuses the tale belongs in a medical textbook.
The comic subplot only worsens matters: Since Bertram’s pseudo-militarist sidekick, Parolles (Reg Rogers), is so phony that everyone else sees through him instantly, Bertram seems an even dimmer bulb. Though the text is shot through with iridescent flashes of Shakespearean verse magic and sharp barbs of Shakespearean irony, it’s notably short on good humor: Neither Parolles nor the official clown, Lavatch (David Manis), gets many laugh lines. The author of Twelfth Night must have been in a dour mood when he turned out this stuff.
But that’s what I normally feel at All’s Well. I felt differently after Daniel Sullivan’s new Park production. Sullivan has succeeded in capturing this paradoxical play’s quality, through a style that’s itself a paradox. The overall atmosphere is airy, delicately silly, romantically bright-colored, a nebulously early-Edwardian hoopla of long gowns and operetta-cadet uniforms, by Jane Greenwood, set to syrupy mock-Lehár waltzes by Tom Kitt, like one of Merchant-Ivory’s Henry James fairy tales. But the playing style is the Park’s customary style: hard, blunt, broad-gestured. Even Bertram’s mother, the Countess (Tonya Pinkins), usually viewed as the most charming older woman in Shakespeare, is rendered here as a no-nonsense gal, practicing maternal Realpolitik.
The disjunctive combination works, lifting you lightly over the bumps of the elaborate plot contrivances on one hand and the grim psychological resonances on the other. Sullivan manages this by banking, astutely, on his key cast members: Holland’s sweetly clueless youthfulness makes Bertram forgivable; John Cullum’s crusty, sardonic King balances Pinkins’s hardheadedness, with Dakin Matthews’s Lafew a crisply funny intermediary. Matthews, and Carson Elrod’s nimble Interpreter, get the subplot laughs that Rogers’s exaggerated Parolles and Manis’s tetchy bureaucrat of a Lavatch don’t even try for. Best of all is Parisse, whom the show’s broad, out-front style makes endearingly open-hearted, always tender yet cunning. In the period gowns she has the look, as well as the bravura, of a young Marian Seldes.