Sun-drenched Messina or Sun Belt capital Atlanta — take your pick: The battle of the sexes rages as New York’s summer season gets underway, courtesy of the Bard, in Italy, and last year’s prodigiously talented Pulitzer winner, Ayad Akhtar, in the second.
Shakespeare in The Park, the continuing gift of the Public Theater to people either willing to wait hours on line or shell out tax-deductible dollars to the House That Joe Papp Built, launches with director Jack O’Brien’s visually sumptuous and often rollicking — and unabashedly American — staging of Much Ado About Nothing. I use the words visually stunning even in the knowledge that Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film set the bar very very high on that account. But rare is the Shakespeare comedy that isn’t enhanced by the bosky Central Park setting of the Delacorte Theatre, with the Belvedere Castle looming in the near distance, and design legend John Lee Beatty has provided an ochre-suffused villa and square as inviting as you would expect. You may find yourself sorely tempted to order an espresso and pull up a chair.
This is the one about Beatrice and Benedick, those viper-tongued combatants who doth protest too much, and the machinations set in play by Bea’s younger, prettier cousin Hero and her champing-at-the-bit lover Claudio, to facilitate their own nuptials by getting the squallers together. No one untangles Shakespeare better than O’Brien, a giant of a director as comfortable steering Hairspray to hitdom as making sense of Stoppard and, always, something present and ripe of Shakespeare.
Beatrice is played by Lily Rabe (Portia in the recent Al Pacino-led Merchant Of Venice that began on this same stage) and Benedick by Hamish Linklater, a star of Woody Allen”s upcoming Magic In The Moonlight. Both actors are popping up on screens all over. Here they have chemistry; their verbal wrestling is fiery and funny, if lacking the overlay of elegance that can lift the play to a higher level (as when Derek Jacobi played Benedick opposite Sinead Cusack back in the foggy recesses of memory).
David Yazbeck contributes enchanting music to Billy Big Boy’s song-filled script and, per O’Brien’s standard, the business unfolds with clarity and warmth.
At Lincoln Center Theater’s tiny Claire Tow Theatre atop the Vivian Beaumont, Akhtar’s The Who & The What is not quite as explosive as Disgraced, the Aasif Mandvi-starring play that opened here two seasons ago and is arriving this fall (minus the Daily Show regular), about the impact of post-9/11 political correctness on a mixed marriage of strivers.
Set in Atlanta, the play centers on the two young-adult daughters of Afzal (the affectingy seductive Bernard White), a devout Muslim who has risen from city hack to wealthy taxi fleet owner. Younger daughter Mahwish (Tala Ashe) is eager to marry the man Dad arranged for her in childhood and who has been her boyfriend for years (despite a wandering eye that complicates matters). Elder daughter Zarina is the Beatrice here — in this case a Harvard-educated aspiring novelist who questions Islam’s treatment of women and has put off marriage as long as possible.
When Afzal sets Zarina up with Eli, a convert to Islam who now shepherds his small flock at a local mosque, sparks fly and they fall in love. But Zarina’s searching book, which is also the play’s title, depicts Mohammed in a more human light than her father can tolerate, and the sparks that fly now are caustic. They sear.
Akhtar is a fearless writer, which is the key element that makes his plays so powerful, and he has a finger on the buttons that push contemporary characters (not to mention audiences). All four people in The Who & The What are sympathetic, which is no mean trick, and they’re played with warmth and sensitivity under Kimberly Senior’s direction. Already extended through the end of July, this is a show you’ll be seeing in your local theater sooner rather than later.