Theater review by Helen Shaw. Duke on 42nd Street (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Dir. Arin Arbus. With Maggie Siff, Jonathan Cake. 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.
Sigh no more, ladies (and gents), sigh no more. Instead, you should rejoice—and then nip out to buy tickets from Theatre for a New Audience. In a masterstroke, Arin Arbus’s frequently charming production of Much Ado About Nothing has cast Jonathan Cake as Benedick, and his agile, gleeful performance drives out any possibility—any thought at all—of woe.
Deceptions abound in Shakespeare’s Messina. In an atmosphere rife with masquerades and love tricks, Benedick’s friends, the prince Don Pedro (Graham Winton) and Claudio (Matthew Amendt), are gulled by wicked Don John (Saxon Palmer) into believing the worst about Claudio’s betrothed, Hero (Michelle Beck). Indeed, almost all of the “plot” rests on these machinations, but you’ll barely notice. As the marriage-hating Benedick and his sparring partner, Beatrice (the always-magnetic Maggie Siff), turn inevitably toward love, the whole play moves helplessly in their wake. The production has clearly heeded British director Trevor Nunn’s comment that the play must be done with “sufficient seriousness.” Riccardo Hernandez’s set is all shadowy black corners, with one tree and a swing for frolicking; Donald Holder’s lighting design scrimps on brightness, then shines the occasional awkward (but necessary) spotlight.
Many actors do fine work—Amendt as fickle Claudio, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as perky maid Ursula—but others, occasionally left adrift by Arbus, are still finding their footing. It scarcely matters, though, since Cake’s confident, outsize high jinks operate as a kind of grounding force. He prompts barking, helpless laughter; he even stage-manages scenes, hustling an actor offstage so that he can get time alone to flirt with the audience. All apologies to Beatrice, but it’s a masterpiece of seduction. None of us are left with our modesty intact.—Helen Shaw