Al Pacino stunningly good in `Merchant`

New York: Though he appears in only a handful of scenes, Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" is perhaps William Shakespeare`s most thorny character. Al Pacino plunges into that fraught thicket on Broadway and emerges bloody, but undefeated.

Pacino manages to play the anti-Semitic characteristics of the hated Jewish money-lender without inhibition, and yet also communicate the burning anger welling up as the result of a lifetime of Christian contempt.

It is a terrific, fierce performance but only one in this superb Public Theater production that opened Saturday night at the Broadhurst Theatre. The production, which moved from Central Park with some tightening, places the darkest of Shakespeare`s comedies in the Victorian Age, making it reek of filthy lucre.

Director Daniel Sullivan and scenic designer Mark Wendland waste no time in signaling what they wish to tease out by devising a stage dominated by imposing concentric iron gates that turn and overlap, creating spaces inside — and therefore outside, too.

As the play begins, the inner sanctum is filled with a stock-ticker and Christian gentlemen in waistcoats, cravats and top hats; outside, forbidden to enter, are the Jews. Those gates will later turn to create prison walls.

Love starts it all off, when Bassanio (David Harbour) goes to his old merchant friend Antonio (Byron Jennings) to ask for money to woo the fair Portia (Lily Rabe). Antonio, short of cash, must borrow from Shylock against the safe return of his ships from abroad. Antonio, an upright businessman, cannot feign his dislike of the lowly Shylock, whose demand for interest on the loan represents to him crass commercialization.

They strike an unusual bargain: Should Antonio fail to repay the loan, Shylock will extract a pound of his debtor`s flesh. This, of course, comes to pass and Antonio must plead for mercy from a man to whom he has given so little.

Pacino, in a yarmulke and black suit, is hunched and haggard on stage, burdened by a Venice with canals of hypocrisy and his own peoples` history of horrors. He plays Shylock as an arrogant, calculating, venal man — as furious that his daughter Jessica (Heather Lind) has fled him and converted to Christianity with her new husband as he is that she`s also taken a small fortune. There`s not an ounce of compassion when he finally gets one of his tormentors in his grasp.

"The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction," Pacino says in a rather understated version of the famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech.

Shakespeare likely never met a Jew, and so his use of Shylock is as a stock villain, a way to explore early 17th-century greed in an otherwise romantic comedy about three couples finding that being in love is not as easy as falling in love. These days, though, the problem of Shylock must be addressed and, in this production, Pacino dives in headfirst, true to the Bard`s caricature and yet finding the wounded man within.

Caught in their own financial trap, the supposed heroes of the play fall apart. Jennings` Antonio collapses into simpering self-pity, left having to repay money he never enjoyed and also heartbroken by Bassanio, for whom it is suggested he shared a homoerotic love. For his part, Harbour`s Bassanio is made meek, paralyzed by the push-pull of wanting to be with his new wife and yet powerless to help his friend.

Into the void roars Portia, played with humor, sass and strength by a dazzling Rabe. Only she can match wits with Shylock, but only if she ditches the gorgeous Jess Goldstein-designed gowns and uses her naturally gravelly voice to her advantage when she goes undercover as a male legal expert. She can do what all the Christian men in town cannot: Get justice. Rabe radiates a wonderful combination of Lauren Bacall, Kathleen Turner and her late mother, Jill Clayburgh.

Other standout performances are by Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano, a hard-partying friend of Antonio, and Christopher Fitzgerald, as Launcelot Gobbo, a joker with a vein of anti-Semitism. Martin plays a perfect rogue, who sings, sips from a flask and is forever hot-tempered (though the crotch-grabbing may have gone too far). Fitzgerald takes his broad comedic gifts to a dark, menacing place as Shylock`s servant.

Sullivan has added a silent, final scene for Shylock. The tables have been suddenly and mercilessly turned and he must convert to Christianity. Shylock is bundled into a pool of water and baptized. Yet even defeated and soaked in water he is defiant, returning the yarmulke to his head.

Bureau Report