Shakespeare in the Park productions can run the gamut from unforgettable and extraordinary (“The Seagull” with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Merchant of Venice” with Al Pacino, the “Hair” revival) to dreadfully misguided (“The Bacchae,” the “Into the Woods” revival).
The new production of Shakespeare’s frothy romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” led by park regulars Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater and directed by the much admired Jack O’Brien (“Hairspray”), makes for a pleasant, scenic and accessible night of free professional theater. It may not be noteworthy or ambitious but it’s certainly not bad.
“Much Ado” mainly concerns an attempt by the hateful bastard brother of Prince Don Pedro to defame the reputation of Hero, a young girl about to be married to Don Pedro’s pal Claudio, by convincing everyone that she is a whore.
However, it is best known for featuring the eternally sparring Beatrice and Benedict, who have previously engaged in a war of witty repartee and are finally tricked by the other characters into admitting their feelings for each other.
Rabe, who has already portrayed Portia (“The Merchant of Venice”) and Rosalind (“As You Like It”) to great acclaim, brings considerable comedic timing and bite to Beatrice.
Linklater, who played opposite Rabe in “The Merchant of Venice,” is a clownish, scruffy and whiny Benedict. It’s hard to believe his Benedict is also, as the text suggests, a war hero, but that’s not a big deal.
They are joined by a fine supporting cast including the rich-voiced Brian Stokes Mitchell (“Ragtime,” “Kiss Me Kate”) as Don Pedro. O’Brien even finds a spot where Mitchell can sing a bit.
One can’t help but wonder why Rabe and Linklater aren’t instead playing Kate and Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew,” a difficult but far more interesting comedy that has not been done at the park in ages. “Much Ado” was done 10 years ago in an almost indistinguishable production that also had a turn of the century Italian look to it.
If you go:
“Much Ado About Nothing” plays at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 6. Go to publictheater.org for info on obtaining free tickets.