By Melissa Rose Bernardo
December 07, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

In Act Five of Cymbeline, an imprisoned Postumus (Michael Cerveris) has a dream in which the puppet-faced ghosts of his ancestors enter his jail cell and the great god Jupiter descends from the heavens on a ginormous eagle. It’s simultaneously ridiculous — and entirely befitting this Shakespearean stew of a play. It’s also one of the few truly vibrant moments in Lincoln Center Theater’s overly reverent production.

Cymbeline is a conundrum, to be sure. Technically, it’s a tragedy; modern scholars, however, classify it — along with Pericles, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale — as a late romance. Yet there are no real tragic elements: Yes, the queen (Phylicia Rashad) dies, but she was passing out poison left and right. True, there is a beheading, but Cloten (Adam Dannheisser) was asking for it. (Plus, they both happen offstage.) Technically, the kingdom is at war, but in the end, King Cymbeline (John Cullum) tells the guy whose butt he just whooped, Hey, forget the whole reason we fought, let’s be friends, and we’ll give your boss the money he wanted. The shirtless cad (Jonathan Cake) who besmirched the princess’ good name gets nothing more than a shameful reproach. An entire family is reunited. Everyone joins hands! Yeah, there’s a reason this is called one of the Bard’s problem plays.

But the fault lies not entirely with the playwright. Miscasting abounds here: Cerveris, so moving earlier this year in the Public Theater’s King Lear, comes off terribly bland as the quick-tempered (and badly wigged) Postumus. Rashad seems like she’d be more comfortable a few blocks downtown playing Ursula in The Little Mermaid. And then there’s Martha Plimpton as Imogen — probably Shakespeare’s most complex heroine — the princess who’s wed to commoner Postumus, the fair maiden whom Iachimo believes he can woo and win merely for sport, the wronged wife who’s forced to flee to the forest disguised as a man after she’s spurned by her husband. Plimpton — last seen at Lincoln Center in Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy — is ideally suited for so many Shakespearean heroines; her Helena was a high point in August’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in Central Park. I can’t wait to see her do Portia, Rosalind, Isabella. But I found her Imogen mannered and tightly wound, and together, she and Cerveris simply didn’t spark.

The actor who gave off major sparks? Cake — and not simply because he did two scenes entirely shirtless. (Really, was there any reason to set that betcha-I-can-bed-your-wife exchange between Iachimo and Postumus in a steam room? Other than to put Cake in a towel?) He always seemed entirely engaged, whether sparring with Cerveris or circling Imogen’s bedchamber like a cat burglar in heat.

The entire evening does look gorgeous from top to bottom — Michael Yeargan knows what to do with a little gold leaf, and Jess Goldstein is a master with tapestry. If only Lamos hadn’t taken the whole business so seriously. Any play containing the stage direction ”Jupiter descends in thunder and lighting…he throws a thunderbolt” demands a little levity. B-
(Tickets: 212-239-6200 or