PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Merchant of Venice — In For a Pound

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Merchant of Venice — In For a Pound
 
Meet the revelers celebrating the Broadway run of The Public Theater production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino and Lily Rabe.

Al Pacino and director Daniel Sullivan; guests Colin Quinn, Eve Best, Bobby Cannavale and Sutton Foster
Al Pacino and director Daniel Sullivan; guests Colin Quinn, Eve Best, Bobby Cannavale and Sutton Foster Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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The quality of mercy was, indeed, not strained Nov. 7 when Al Pacino and Lily Rabe reprised at Broadway's Broadhurst the work they did last summer at Central Park's Delacorte in The Merchant of Venice — he in the role of the vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock (not the title role), and she as the Portia who eloquently prevents him from claiming his infamous and fatal "pound of flesh."

The evening was billed as an "opening celebration" rather than an "opening night," meaning the opening night party at E Space had already been paid for and would go on as originally scheduled. A new official opening night (a press opening, after which reviews will run) has yet to be posted.

The reason for this delay was the death on Friday of Rabe's mother, the luminous Jill Clayburgh, from a 21-year bout of leukemia. She had also been a close friend of Pacino (their five-year relationship in the '70s dovetailed into a lasting friendship).

Somehow, Rabe and Pacino summoned the strength to go on in true trouper tradition and gave splendid accounts of themselves, even improving on their much-applauded performances in the park. Rabe was a tower of strength and reason throughout, crumbling into tears only at the curtain call when Pacino came out for his bow and presented his leading lady (and adversary) with a bouquet of roses. Going the extra mile after scaling this emotional Everest, both showed up at the celebration party — Pacino fleetingly for the photographers, but Rabe stuck around and dined with friends and family. The usual red-carpet interviewers kept their respectful distance all evening. Making it a united front, her playwright-father, David Rabe, and her actor-brother, Michael, slipped into the theatre just before the curtain went up and settled into aisle seats on the fourth row.

Sarah Paulson and Lombardi's Judith Light, who had played Rabe's sister and mother in Off-Broadway's Colder Than Here, attended as supportive friends, as did Jesse Tyler Ferguson,whose hit TV series "Modern Family" forced him out of the Broadway transfer. His part of Shylock's manic manservant was taken over by "the brilliant Christopher Fitzgerald" (Ferguson's assessment — and not too far off the beam, that). "Very bittersweet, tonight," Light observed, adding tenderly, "Lily was beyond breathtaking." Others who trundled over from their matinees included Eric Bogosian from Time Stands Still, Cherry Jones from Mrs. Warren's Profession and Johanna Day fromMiddletown. And midway through the party came Bill Heck and Zachary Quinto, ten minutes after Angels in America had let out a block away at the Signature Theatre.

"It was a wonderful night tonight," opted Seth Numrich, who took over Heck's role of Lorenzo, the Christian who elopes with Shylock's daughter and inflames the Jew's sense of justice. "It felt like another performance, except with an audience that was really supportive and full of love — and that was exactly what we needed right now. Now, we are up and running, and we can move past that."

Marsha Stephanie Blake, who stepped in as Portia's lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, when Marianne Jean-Baptiste chose to take a New York movie ("Violets and Daisies") instead, is delighted with the new company she is keeping.

"I'm having a great time," she admitted. "It's very interesting coming in to a cast that was already partially established, but everyone said 'Great!' and the director is amazing, and it's obvious this experience is once-in-a-lifetime, so I am having a blast."

Another new recruit for the Broadway edition—there are roughly a half-dozen in a cast of 31—was Peter Francis James. "I saw it in the park, and I thought, 'Aw, I would love to have been in that.' I worked with Dan on Stuff Happens [playing Colin Powell], and I just think he's a brilliant director. A few people had commitments, and word came in, 'Would you like to do Salerio?' It was not the biggest part, but it's Dan Sullivan, it's William Shakespeare, it's Broadway, it's Al Pacino — what is there to say 'no' to? Those are four yeses, so . . ."

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Dan Sullivan, formally billed as Daniel Sullivan, is the production's principal magician, here billed as director. He was the go-to guy that Pacino went to when he developed a nagging feeling there was some aspect of Shylock left untouched by his 2004 performance in Michael Radford's gorgeously lensed (in Venice) film. "Al," Sullivan reflected thoughtfully, "is one of those unique actors who just likes to keep working on roles. He keeps finding new stuff. It's something that refreshes him, as he refreshes the role. He did his role in Salome twice, for one thing.

"I think anybody who does Shakespeare always feels they have missed something. I'm the guy who has done Two Gentlemen of Verona three times, always thinking like 'This time I'll get it right.' You never feel you've totally come up to the mark. That's why you constantly want to explore Shakespeare. I think it's true of Al."

One new (and quite inspired) thing that Sullivan came up was a cruelly humiliating exit for Shylock—his enforced Christian baptism, only mentioned in passing in the text. The director has it all acted-out now in big, splashy, full-dunking degradation.

"I remember calling Al when I had the idea because I wanted him to know that I would want to baptize him, which would be dunking him in water, and I wanted to build the whole set around the idea so I thought, 'I'd better clear this with Al before we actually do this or we could be in trouble.' He just said" — and Sullivan broke into primal, guttural Pacino for this — "'That's very powerful, Dan.' He bought it."

So, one has to wonder, how is it to direct a formidable force of nature like Pacino? "He's a good guy. It's always new, it's always different, it's always fresh. Every time he walks on stage, there's something new going to happen. You don't know what it is, but it's all built around the central core of technique. He knows what he's doing." For that matter, how is it to direct Charles Kimbrough? He embroiders an elaborate comic valentine out of a near-bit role (The Prince of Arragon, one of Portia's also-ran swains) and on most nights draws exit applause for his efforts. "It's all the same," said Sullivan. "All actors respond to being kept on a good long leash."

Kimbrough, who arrived at the party with Beth Howland (the wife he found 30 years ago in the original company of Company, professed not to know why his funny fussiness lands so well, but "I got wonderful direction from Dan."

Isaiah Johnson — who plays The Prince of Morocco, another suitor rivaling David Harbour's Bassanio for Portia's affections — likewise scored big in a small part. "I had a ball," he said. "It's a fun scene. I'm on stage long enough to be remembered but not long enough to mess it up." The accent he affects is hilarious and authentic. "Actually, I got the accent from a guy whose name I can't remember. He operates a breakfast food cart that I frequent at the corner of Broadway and Waverly, and he's from Morocco. I speak with him often. I get my bagel and coffee every morning. I decided to ask him to read the script for me and talk about what it's like being Moroccan. He read it, and I taped the dialect and practiced and studied it."

Matthew Rauch as Solanio makes his small role stand out with an expert, devastatingly dead-on impersonation of Pacino. "Yes, Mr. Pacino sees my Pacino," he nodded. "Well, we spent the last six months together so I've had a lot of time to watch him. He once offered to do the speech for me so I'd be able to imitate him, but I said, 'No, Al, thank you. That would be really too weird.' We laugh about it every night. This was a dream job when we did it in the park, and the dream got better."

Gerry Bamman said there is no Nixon (or, in his case, Nixon's Nixon) in his Duke of Venice. who sits in judgment on the Shylock case, but he suspects Portia of some slick lawyer tricks and cites Antonin Scalia, an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, on the matter: "He says it's all bogus. If the contract said a pound of flesh, then that would imply the dropping of blood."

Indoor or outdoor Shakespeare — he doesn't have a preference. "The thing that I like best is that, as all good productions should, it has just gotten better since the park."

That seems to be the consensus of the cast. "I think it's better," chimed in the show's Tubal, Richard Topol. "Everybody has grown. Dan Sullivan is amazing. He's a brilliant director. There's a reason he's called 'Broadway Dan.' We didn't have that much rehearsal for Broadway — just a few weeks — but he kept digging and making everybody find fresh stuff. We stand there, thinking, 'We did this for three months. Why did we not ever even think about that?' He really kept pushing everybody. The fierceness with which everybody is living this reality is ten times greater now."

"Obviously, it's a lot smaller area," asterisked Jesse L. Martin," the play's Gratiano. "We have a lot less space to cover, but it feels better. It's like the story is more focused. We have been getting that response from people so that's really cool." None of the above surprised Byron Jennings, who plays Antonio, the anti-Semitic merchant who stands accused, awaiting Shylock's carving knife. He has worked with Sullivan for 35 years and something like a dozen different shows.

"He knows how to direct an actor," offered Jennings. "He's an extraordinary actor himself. He understands what an actor needs to do as far as bringing in his own work during the beginning of the process and allowing them to do their own work, and then he will help you focus it. That's a really remarkable gift, I think."

The Merchant of Venice is the first time Oskar Eustis, in his half-decade as kingpin of The Public, has shepherded The Bard to Broadway. "It's thrilling, I must to say," he admitted. "We brought new plays and musicals, but this is the first time we're bringing a Shakespeare to Broadway under my watch. The New York Shakespeare Festival is how The Public Theater was founded. Shakespeare is at the core DNA of The Public so to bring him to the biggest stage that America has to offer is a wonderful feeling. It's strange to compare Merchant of Venice to Hair, but what's similar about them is that we were afraid when we moved it indoors that it would lose some of the magic of the park. Not at all. What we have discovered emerging is exactly the opposite. We have cut the stage in half. This stage is half the size it was in the park. That increased concentration — that increased focus, has, I think, made the play land even more powerfully than it did in the park."

Oscar Isaac, the Delacorte's last Romeo, was in attendance, as were Lombardi director Thomas Kail; two-time Tony nominee Eve Best (who has a vivid two-line bit in "The King's Speech" as Wallis Simpson); Joel Vig; Bloody Bloody Broadway newbie Alex Timbers (in previews with his second Main Stem-directing job of the season, The Pee wee Herman Show); David Aaron Baker (who's catching some episodic-TV action these days); Brooke Shields; Promises, Promises' Brooks Ashmanskas; Anything Goes' Sutton Foster with Bells Are Ringing's Bobby Cannavale (a consistent new-two since Trust); Andrew McCarthy and Pablo Schreiber (with their respective wives, Dolores Rice and Jessica Monty); actress Christina Lind (whose sister, Heather, plays Shylock's daughter); Carolyn McCormick (whose hubby, Jennings, plays his hate-object) with their two sons; The Knicks' Rodger Mason Jr.; and Gbenga Akinnagbe of "The Wire."

Colin Quinn, who Broadway-bows Nov. 9 with his Long Story Short, "commuted" from the Helen Hayes directly across 44th to see what all the commotion was about. "Al needs my support — he needs the publicity," Quinn wisecracked. "I'll tell you the truth: Working Broadway is ten times more exciting to me every time I see his name across the street from mine. It's an extra thrill."

Richard Thomas, arriving with wife Georgina Bischoff, said his last Shakespeare was As You Like It — "in the park, actually, a few years ago." He has another play in the offing but was reluctant to discuss it until his mark is affixed securely to the dotted line. He played Clayburgh's hubby when she suddenly and happily returned to Broadway in 2005's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way.

Before leaving the party, Tovah Feldshuh weighed in with her review: "I had the time of my life because Al Pacino is as brilliant as he is famous, and he will put asses in the seats to see Shakespeare. And Lily is quite magnificent. It was just a very poignant, four-dimensional night because of the loss of Jill 48 hours ago and her valiant, gifted daughter carrying on. The best thing Lily can do is keep going on."

Jesse L. Martin, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings, David Harbour and Peter Francis James
Jesse L. Martin, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings, David Harbour and Peter Francis James
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