Lawrence Harbison,The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about THE WINTER’S TALE, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, THE GRAND MANNER, A QUESTION OF MERCY and LOVESONG OF THE ELECTRIC BEAR.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

This summer, for the first time the New York Shakespeare Festival is running two productions in rotating rep at the Delacorte Theatre, The Winter’s Tale directed by Michael Greif and The Merchant of Venice directed by Daniel Sullivan. A repertory company does both plays, except for four actors, two per play, who only appear in one. It’s always a pleasure to go to the Delacorte; this summer it’s Theatre Heaven.

I started off with The Winter’s Tale, which I had never much cared for. Greif’s production made me realize that I hadn’t cared for it because I had never seen a really good production of it – until now. It’s largely been dismissed by the critics; why, I cannot fathom.

The challenge when doing the play is in how to make the character of Leontes not only credible but sympathetic. In the first half of the play, with his pathological suspicion of his wife’s infidelity with his best friend, he comes off as Othello, but without Iago there to manipulate him. Ruben Santiago-Hudson does a credible job here, and almost manages to make this believable; but he shines thereafter, as he recognizes his foolishness and tries to expiate the guilt he feels for having caused the deaths of his queen and his young son.

The other actors in the show are uniformly outstanding. My faves were Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a powerful, raging Paulina; Max Wright and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the Bohemian shepherd and his dim son who find baby Perdita, left to die on the orders of her father Leontes, Linda Emond as an extremely touching Hermione, Heather Lind as Perdita and Hamish Linklater as Autolycus. Linklater is fast emerging as one of our finest actors, particularly in comedy, and I think Lind is a Future Star. I liked just about everything in Greif’s production, from Clint Ramos’ beautiful, rather whimsical costumes to Tom Kitt’s charming music.

Don’t believe what you’re read about this production: it’s really wonderful.

As is Sullivan’s even more wonderful production of The Merchant of Venice. Al Pacino is the finest Shylock I have ever seen, and Lily Rabe the finest Portia. Sullivan brilliantly makes it crystal clear that the play takes place in a world of high stakes finance and speculation, giving it a startling contemporary relevance to our world in the here and now.

Pacino is simply astonishing in the difficult role of Shylock, making him an archetypal Little Guy screwed by The System. Nobody does rage better than Pacino; and nobody that I have ever seen in the roles breaks your heart more than he does. Truly, he is “The Jew which Shakespeare drew.” Rabe is sweetly authoritative as Portia and once again Hamish Linklater amazes in the usually ho-hum role of Bassanio, whose need for money in order to have a shot with Portia sets the ball rolling. Linklater’s is a three-dimensional, compelling creation of a somewhat callow young man who becomes a grown-up by play’s end. Bill Heck is also compelling in the usually-forgettable role of Lorenzo, the gentile who steals Shylock’s daughter Jessica and marries her right under her father’s nose. Byron Jennings, who also appears in The Winter’s Tale (as Camillo), is the best Antonio I have ever seen, and once again Heather Lind is impressive as Jessica.

There are so many small pleasures in this production that I can hardly list them all. Max Wright makes a delightfully dotty, semi deaf and semi-senile Prince of Arragon, and Nyambi Nyambi proceeds to top him as a goofily pompous Prince of Morocco. Gerry Bamman, a wonderful Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale, is even more wonderful here as the Duke; and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, as Lancelot Gobbo, is as hilarious as he was in The Winter’s Tale.

Both productions in the park this summer are Not To Be Missed. They continue through 1 August.

Also Not To Be Missed is A.R. Gurney’s The Grand Manner, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center. Gurney has based the play on an actual incident during his youth, when he travelled from his prep school in New Hampshire down to New York to see the legendary Katharine Cornell in Antony and Cleopatra. Armed with a letter from his grandmother, who knew Miss Cornell from Buffalo, he meets her, gets his souvenir program signed, and that’s it. Well, that’s what actually happens; but Gurney then proceeds to spin a “what if” scenario: what if he stayed longer and learned the truth about Miss Cornell and her husband, Guthrie McClintick? What if during this lengthy visit Miss Cornell came to a realization about the price of fame and success, about how she has gone from a great artist to a stately battleship going through the still waters in the “grand manner” which now, at the advent of Marlon Brando, seems obsolete.

Kate Burton is wonderful as Cornell; but even more wonderful are Boyd Gaines as Guthrie McClintick and Bobby Steggert as young Pete. Beautifully directed by Mark Lamos, this is Yet Another wonderful play by one of our finest playwrights, who should have won the Pulitzer Prize long ago.

Potomac Theatre Project is in residence at Atlantic Stage 2 with three productions, also running in rotating rep. I caught two of them, a revival of David Rabe’s A Question of Mercy and Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear. Both were terrific.

A Question of Mercy, was first done in the early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic was raging, as was Jack Kevorkian’s (“Doctor Death”) battle to legalize euthanasia. A desperate, distraught man comes to his former doctor to please with her to help his lover, who is in the final stages of dying of AIDS, to kill himself. Though the play is less immediate than it was originally, and seems (thankfully I guess) like a relic from a long-past time, Jim Petosa’s production is mighty fine. Tim Spears is heartbreaking as Anthony, whose lover is dying, and Paula Langton is very compelling as Dr. Chapman. Alex Cranmer is absolutely harrowing as the dying Thomas.

This is a fine production or a more or less forgotten play, and well worth your attention.

As is Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear, an absurdist take on the story of Alan Turing, who originally conceived the concept of the computer, whose genius led to the breaking of Germany’s Enigma Code which contributed significantly to the defeat of the Nazis and who killed himself in the early 1950’s when he was persecuted for being a homosexual.

Apparently Turing, something of a child-man, continued to sleep with his teddy bear long into adulthood. Wilson makes this bear a character, as the play’s narrator and Turing’s protector and sometime foil. It’s a rather goofy concept, but it works. There have been other plays about Turing, Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code being the most well-known, but Wilson’s is a worthy addition to the genre. It has been inventively directed by Cheryl Faraone and features terrific performances from Alex Draper as Turing and Tara Giordano as his teddy bear.

Both PTP productions are well-worth seeing.

THE WINTER’S TALE and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Delacorte

Theatre.

Tickets: You can wait in line at the Delacorte or at the Public Theatre; or

you can try Virtual Ticketing at www.shakespeareinthepark.org, sort of an

online lottery where you can apply for tickets on the day of the

performance.

THE GRAND MANNER. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center.

Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

A QUESTION OF MERCY and LOVESONG OF THE ELECTRIC BEAR.

Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th St.

Tickets: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200

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