So foul and fair a play I have not seen in years. The Public Theater has kicked off its Central Park season with Macbeth, and despite some spotty performances, the Scottish Play emerges as a wise and timely choice.
Recent years have brought us — as the nakedly ambitious tragic hero — the overcooked Kelsey Grammer (on Broadway, very briefly, in 2000) and an underripe Alec Baldwin (Off Broadway in 1998). Picking up the dagger here is Liev Schreiber, who’s probably more comfortable with iambic pentameter than any other actor of his generation. At the Public alone, he’s played Iago in Othello, Iachimo in a sumptuous Central Park-set Cymbeline, Banquo opposite Baldwin, and the title roles in Hamlet and Henry V. Macbeth is the perfect addition to Schreiber’s Shakespearean oeuvre, and it’s an imposing, impressively compact performance. His Macbeth is commanding, yet self-conscious; a stellar swordsman with an incongruously weak stomach (talk of Banquo’s ”twenty trenchéd gashes” nearly causes him to gag). The crown looks uncomfortably tight on his head; his doublet frequently is unlaced; he contorts his large frame into an awkward slump when sitting in his throne. And he’s actually likeable. Despite stabbing a saintly white-haired king, usurping his title, and putting a hit out on his buddy Banquo, this Macbeth turns out to be the guy to root for. Of course, that could partly be owing to Sterling K. Brown’s dismal Macduff; from his mush-mouthed delivery to his clunky swordplay, everything about his portrayal of Macbeth’s rival is ineffectual. Even Teagle F. Bougere — so strong as A Raisin in the Sun‘s sweet Asagai — finds new levels of blandness in Banquo. As the sleepwalking Queen, Jennifer Ehle (The Real Thing) is probably the most put-together Lady M you’ve ever seen — graceful, polished, and impossibly elegant in Michael Krass’ haute-couture-style gowns. She’s a Martha Stewart-like ice princess, and a worthy foil for Schreiber’s King.
With Moisés Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife) at the helm, the evening — with an 8:30 curtain time, designed so that dark deeds take place under a blanket of black night sky — moves briskly. Other noteworthy directorial flourishes: the sound of bombs dropping in the background; camouflage-clad weird sisters prowling like foot soldiers. And Derek McLane’s set — with its gilded scaffolding, antiqued tiered chandeliers, and piles of rubble strewn perilously about — is a marvel. (Tickets: Free, distributed daily at various locations throughout New York City; see publictheater.org for details.)