In the "Romeo and Juliet" smackdown inexplicably preoccupying our autumn theater, small turns out to be better.
Uptown, Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad are playing to dwindling audiences in the disappointing, high-profile Broadway production with an interracial update and zero chemistry. Meanwhile, below 14th Street, the tiny but frequently mighty Classic Stage Company generates more heat in a willful and foolish but unpretentiously alive modern-dress edition.
This is not to suggest that the Off-Broadway version -- retitled with a presumably hipper ampersand as "Romeo & Juliet" -- is a production to savor much beyond the final bows. For starters, the stakes seldom feel high enough for Shakespeare's grand and intimate tragedy of family feud and star-crossed love.
Elizabeth Olsen, whose acclaimed film performance in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" proved she is more than just the little sister of the Olsen fashionista twins, has the right fragile look as young Juliet. She also has admirable vocal variety -- and a sophisticated, been-around contemporary presence that says popular girl more than virginal flower. That strength gives Juliet nowhere to go as the character deepens from child to horrified woman.
She is helped, but not transported, by Julian Cihi, a gifted young New York University graduate with a ponytail and understated confidence who replaced Finn Wittrock as Romeo after he got a movie deal. Most touching is T.R. Knight, who makes a shaggy, feral but sweet-natured Mercutio.
Tea Alagic, the Bosnian-born director of last season's dangerous "Jackie" at the Women's Project, strips down the setting into a clean, neutral space with a blond wooden floor and a few matching chairs. Costumes are anything but neutral, with Juliet's father (David Garrison) in a silk dressing gown and her mother (Kathryn Meisle) done up like a Real Housewife of Verona. Daphne Rubin-Vega has way too much fun, but not ineffectively, playing the nurse as a Hispanic sex bomb. When excited, she lapses into Spanish. One of the warring, shirtless Capulets talks Russian. Many have tattoos.
The production has a mad, playful streak that calls attention away from the drama at least as often as it amuses with its audacity. There is no balcony, and Tybalt gets stabbed by what appears to be a sharp little marble. Romeo wears a Pooh Bear head when he crashes the costume ball to fall fatally in love with Juliet. Daniel Davis keeps his dignity as Friar Laurence, which, under the circumstances, seems extraordinary.
WHAT "Romeo & Juliet"
WHERE Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St.
INFO $60-$125; 212-352- 3101, classicstage.org
BOTTOM LINE Willful and sometimes foolish, but very much alive