The headlines belong to Al Pacino's harrowing yet unusually restrained Shylock, and rightly so. But the other news on the Central Park rialto is that "The Merchant of Venice," arguably the most disturbing of Shakespeare's so-called comedies, has been honored for both its gripping unpleasantness and its ripping entertainment value by director Daniel Sullivan.
"Merchant," presented as an experiment in alternating repertory with "The Winter's Tale" through Aug. 1, has some comic missteps from the summer's resident company. Overall, however, this late-19th-century stock-market update - staged on Mark Wendland's simple yet sophisticated set of concentric circles and metal grates - confronts and binds the ethical disconnect between the merry Venetian gentiles and their cruelty to the vengeful Jewish moneylender.
What's more, Lily Rabe - a specialist in all-American young women - makes a smashing classical debut as a world-wise but fresh Portia. When she disguises as a male lawyer to save what's left of humanity's day in court, her intelligence reminds us that the gender oppression of her day is almost as cruel as what happens to Shylock.
How fascinating that Pacino - better known onstage for oversized idiosyncrasy than ensemble discipline - subtly molds both a sympathetic and flawed Shylock who becomes more unreadable as unspeakable horrors descend. There is plenty of ferocity, no shortage of spewed poetry and a wily sardonic streak that recognizes the absurdity in the survival tactics of the despised alien. But he's also a cruel little man in a big suit who, when life becomes unbearable, seems to disappear into the shell of his thousand-year-old eyes.
Sullivan, who directed last summer's enchanting "Twelfth Night" with Anne Hathaway, cannot always balance such gravity with the romantic frolics. Gifted comedian Hamish Linklater, as Portia's beloved Bassanio, is far too light and oblivious to deserve her, and Jesse L. Martin is more goofy and vulgar than charming as his buddy Gratiano. But Byron Jennings makes a complicated Antonio, only hinting that his pound-of-flesh sacrifice for Bassanio might involve more than friendship.
Finally, as the Christians giggle off to their weddings, Sullivan sobers us up with a spotlight on Shylock's abused daughter (the lyric Heather Lind), who now knows that her betrayal of him has not freed her from the ancient agonies. Haunting.