There are certain things we are supposed to do to live cultured lives: spend a year in New York City, see Paris with someone you love and to that, it’s not too much to add, see Al Pacino on Broadway in “The Merchant of Venice,” which is now slightly easier since the run was extended to Feb. 20.
Pacino performed this play last summer in Central Park at The Public Theater. He is Shylock. Every pore of his being pretty much screams the moneylender of Renaissance Venice. He gives an amazing performance in a play that, at three hours, could be shorter.
Still, who wants to mess with Shakespeare? Director Daniel Sullivan’s interpretation at the Broadhurst Theater is artful. The story revolves around Antonio (Byron Jennings), a merchant who is positive his investments will pay off soon, so he lends his younger friend, Bassanio (David Harbour), money he doesn’t have.
Antonio borrows money from Shylock, who cuts an unusual deal — if Antonio doesn’t pay back, he doesn’t want interest; he wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
Bassanio wants the money to marry a beautiful heiress, Portia (Lily Rabe), who is even smarter than she is striking.
No one on this stage is anything less than mesmerizing. Jesse L. Martin (“Law & Order”) is having an illegal amount of fun as the rascal Gratiano.
He seems to appreciate that as cool as it was to star on a network show for nine seasons and in the Broadway and film versions of Rent, this ensemble is something special, something people will talk about for years.
In a cast of excellent actors, Rabe is sensational. She was great in off-Broadway’s “Crimes of the Heart,” and here she returned to the stage shortly after the death of her mom, actress Jill Clayburgh. Rabe gives the sort of clear, seasoned performance that make people want to see Shakespeare.
Antonio, as we know, must default on his loan. Rather than take many times the sum he is owed, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. Shylock, a Jew, infuriates everyone. It’s in this play that Shakespeare wrote the lines Shylock says: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? … If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
Of course we know who seeks revenge. Yet that is the magic of this production: In a play that is 500 years old, you find yourself completely captivated and emotionally spent by its end.