By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated November 14, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

Al Pacino’s name is larger than that of William Shakespeare in the Playbill for The Merchant of Venice. The billing reflects the financial realities of mounting a Broadway production — the star is the draw for visitors who might not otherwise buy a ticket to Shakespeare over, say, Wicked. But the typographical imbalance of power also clarifies what’s amiss in the re-sized interpretation of this classic since the nights when director Daniel Sullivan’s fresh production played under the stars last summer in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series. Somewhere between Central Park and the Broadhurst Theatre, Pacino has made his Shylock — the Jewish money lender who is, by any measure, one of the playwright’s most troubling characters — more florid, more reflexively Pacino-y.

And with shrugs, cowers, and a pantomine of hands suggesting stage ”Jewishness,” the actor simultaneously gives Pacino fans their money’s worth and undermines the toughness and stringency of last summer’s outdoor production. In the Park, every character flashed a fascinating kind of meanness and ambition, of which Shylock was just one among many flawed strivers: The brainy heiress Portia (Lily Rabe), the anti-Semitic Christian merchant Antonio (Byron Jennings), and Shylock’s self-hating daughter Jessica (Heather Lind) were equally imperfect and grasping. (All three actors reprise their roles on Broadway.) No one came off well, and ugly anti-Semitism was just one of many societal ailments.

Inside, on Broadway, despite the fine reworking of Mark Wendland’s elegant and spare scenic design with its circling iron gates emphasizing society’s insiders and outsiders, Pacino’s broad performance assures that the Shylock Problem takes inflammatory pride of place. And in keeping up with his actorly flourishes, the rest of the cast goes broader, too. The commanding, spirited Rabe pushes her Portia to self-conscious Katharine Hepburnesque imperiousness; angular, stalwart Jennings softens his Antonio to a kind of unlucky businessman rather than a snob and unrepentant bigot. And replacing Hamish Linklater as Bassanio, the spendthrift aristocratic fop (and beloved protégé of Antonio) who courts Portia, David Harbour hedges on the side of aristo-frat clubbiness. The result: This Pacino-plenty sampling of Shakespeare on Broadway undoes the lesson that high school teachers work so hard to impart — that the merchant in The Merchant of Venice is not Shylock. B-

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