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SUMMER MARCHES ON…

It has been one scorching summer here in New York City, but nowhere was it felt with more oppressiveness than in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, the site of The Public Theatre’s annual free Shakespeare In The Park. Those actors must have been sweating like crazy this year, what with temperatures under those hot lights reaching above 90 degrees on most nights. And unlike most summers, I don’t believe there was one rained-out performance, but I knew of one 45 minute rain delay one recent night. Those splendid actors, on most evenings, would run offstage to buckets of ice water, bottles of Gatorade and air-conditioned dressing rooms for short intervals. Not one casualty to report and even the magnificent Al Pacino, at the age of 70, never lost a line or a performance.

And in Shakespeare’s “Merchant Of Venice”, what a performance he gave. The last time “Merchant” was performed in Central Park was in 1962, and if you read the recent Public Theatre biography, “Free For All”, you’ll know it was George C. Scott who played the moneylender Shylock back then, to much acclaim and just as much disdain, for Shylock is not one of William Shakespeare’s most appealing characters, in fact, there are those who won’t even see “Merchant Of Venice” because of its cruel yet historically accurate portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who, in the course of the play, demands a pound of flesh from the titular merchant when he forfeits on a loan. George C. Scott had never read the play when it was offered to him in 1962, but wanted to do it because he felt whatever actions the character was guilty of, Shylock was “dead right” and would be “a blast” to play. The Delacorte Theatre opened with that production of “Merchant”, which was to be eventually aired on WCBS, until the network caved in to protests from various groups who had no objection to the play being performed in the Park, because the feeling was, those who came to see it in the park for free were, as Joe Papp put it, “cultured people”, whereas, anyone could tune in to see a play about a vengeful Jewish moneylender on television, and presumably, not get it. In other words, not a heck of a lot has changed in the minds of a lot of people in the past 48 years. Yet, that production put Joe Papp and the Delacorte on the map, so to speak, and almost half a century later, here it was again, with Mr. Pacino delivering a performance of such biblical intensity, and so filled with hate and bitterness, and remorse, one could taste the bile in the air about you. As you read this, the season in the park has ended for summer 2010, but the great, good news is the entire beautifully wrought enterprise will be moving lock, stock and Shylock to the Broadhurst Theatre in October with most of the wondrous Central Park cast intact. This “Merchant Of Venice” was only the second time I’d seen the play, and while I was too young to have seen that 1962 production with Mr. Scott, I did have the heady experience of seeing a very odd, very beautiful “Merchant” at Lincoln Center in 1973, which starred the late great Sidney Walker as Shylock, and also included Rosemary Harris and Christopher Walken in its cast. Ellis Rabb had a very twisted view of the play, and indeed, most of it worked, but for the life of me, I still can’t figure out how he managed to get a porn star in a loincloth dragging a huge wooden cross on his sweaty shoulders into that production. Ah, the 70’s, when EVERYTHING was possible. But I digress. tickets go on sale for the Broadway run any day now, and believe me, if you missed the opportunity to wait in line from 4 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon to see it for free, it’s worth every ducat to not miss it at the Broadhurst. Especially considering the likes of Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings, Hamish Linklater, Max Wright, Matthew Rauch and Gerry Bamman will be coming along for the ride.

There’s a wonderful cast involved in a very offbeat new musical, “See Rock City” at the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street through the end of August, and it’s definitely worth the tour. Walking into the theatre, you find there are no seats for the audience, just a huge pile of lawn chairs in one corner. Eventually, cast members untangle the lawn chairs and set out your seats for you, at which point, you’re on your own. The musical is populated by some very eccentric folks, including a runaway bride, a runaway waitress, a runaway tour guide, and one very goofy UFO fanatic, played to the hilt by Stanley Bahorek. “See Rock City” is a pleasant diversion in the waning days of summer.

Paul Weitz’s new play, “Trust” is a small, beautifully polished gem in a lovely little theatre known as The Second Stage on W. 43rd Street. It stars a wonderfully surprising Zach Braff as a seemingly befuddled, sexually starved married man who visits a dominatrix in search of some kind of, any kind of human contact, and ends up with much more, and ultimately, much less than he bargained for. There are twists, and little turns, and surprising hairpins in the 2 hour drive this terrific play offers, and I’ve been a fan of Weitz’s work since the underpraised “Roulette” several years ago at the John Houseman Theatre, so I was more than pleasantly surprised with this latest work. Sutton Foster, in her first non-singing role in a while, plays the mysterious dominatrix to the hilt, ably supported by Ari Graynor and Bobby Cannavale. This is a new play worth savoring, the kind second Stage seems to come up with regularly.