People may be clawing their way into "The Merchant of Venice" to look deep into the thousand-year-old-eyes of Al Pacino's harrowing, yet beautifully restrained Shylock on Broadway. And rightly so. But what theatergoers will also experience - call it collateral advantage - is one of the most gripping, haunting and lucid examples of that elusive, often maligned ideal, American Shakespeare without a British accent.
Everything that was very right about Daniel Sullivan's staging in Central Park last summer is even more impressive indoors, especially Lily Rabe as a Portia who begins with strength and wit and grows into devastating self-knowledge. And everything that was annoying - that is, the more jarring buffoonery - has been recast with theater veterans and redirected to smarten the comedy under a human shade of melancholy.
After exploring Shylock on film and in the Park, Pacino keeps finding quieter and scarier layers in this sympathetic and flawed outcast. There is no shortage of spewed poetry, of fierce little-man-in-a-big-suit bravado, as he lets us watch both Shylock's ancient survival tactics and his recognition of their absurdity. But when life becomes unbearable, which Sullivan shows in an extraordinary forced-baptism scene, this Shylock seems to disappear into the shell of the unreadable.
Without betraying the light parts of Shakespeare's most disturbing so-called comedy, Sullivan tightens the circles that bind the ethical disconnect between the merry Venetian gentiles and their cruelty to the vengeful Jewish moneylender.
Those circles are literal in Mark Wendland's set of concentric metal grates, shrewdly surrounding the bustling Edwardian stock-market update of money matters and unyielding intolerance. Without changing a word, Sullivan effectively broadened our view of society's restrictions to include gays and, especially, women.
The love often hinted between the merchant Antonio (an elegantly unraveling Byron Jennings) and the dashing Bassanio (a pointedly clueless David Harbour) is unambiguous here. And the marriage lottery left by Portia's father is amusingly played, but clearly cruel, and the futures facing both Portia and Shylock's daughter (the lyric Heather Lind) are spelled out in Sullivan's devastating final scene. Instead of the usual happy Christians giggling off to dinner, we are left with the two women in solitary spotlights, contemplating the huge, hard grasp of outsiderness. Shylock is no longer on the scene, but his shadow looms over everything.