Joan Marcus
June 30, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s no more idyllic setting for seeing Shakespeare than Central Park’s open-air Delacorte Theater, and you couldn’t pick a more displeasing play to put there than Measure for Measure, the Public Theater’s current offering. (A close second: All’s Well That Ends Well, which rotates with Measure through July 30.) All of Vienna is suffering from some unnamed STD — probably syphilis. Duke Vincentio (Lorenzo Pisoni) dresses up like a friar and leaves them to rot in the hands of the hypocrite-in-sheep’s-clothing, Angelo (Michael Hayden). Holier-than-thou novice Isabella (a fiery Danai Gurira) won’t swap her virginity for the life of her brother (André Holland), who’s about to be hanged for knocking up his would-be wife. And in the end, marriage — it is a comedy, technically, so Shakespeare has to marry off somebody — is doled out as punishment for near-rape and slander. No wonder this is one of the Bard’s ”problem plays.”

The problem with director David Esbjornson’s production? The tone. Not that Measure for Measure needs to be a laugh-fest. But Reg Rogers, who plays the whoremonger Lucio, seems to be the only one having any fun. Pisoni tries mightily, and he has a moment or two — his Act 2 banter with Lucio over the whereabouts of ”the Duke” is a particular highlight — but he’s never entirely at ease, particularly as Friar Lodewick, which is the bulk of the play. (I actually would have liked to see him swap roles with Hayden, a dynamite Angelo and a first-rate Shakespearean actor.)

Of course, it’s hard to enjoy yourself when — heavy-handed metaphor alert! — the Grim Reaper is wandering around as a silent character. And did we mention the demons? However, there is one clever (and comic) touch to this otherwise dour production, though it doesn’t come until about 10:45 p.m. The curtain-call music: the Rolling Stones’ ”Sympathy for the Devil.” C

(Tickets: Free; distributed on the day of performance online, in Central Park, and throughout the five boroughs. For information see ShakespeareInThePark.org)

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