New York City Theater
"Romeo and Juliet"
Richard Rodgers Theater
Classic Stage Company
When you’re watching “Romeo and Juliet” and you’re thinking about “West Side Story,” you know something’s amiss. So it is with two cold and untidy modern-dress versions of Shakespeare’s tragedy. On Broadway, Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad are the star-crossed lovers. Off Broadway, it’s the equally youthful, equally mismatched Julian Cihi and Elizabeth Olsen. In both, supporting characters run away with the play.
On Broadway, David Leveaux directs with an eye towards effect. To indicate passion, real fire bursts from stage pipes at various intervals. The backdrop is an aging fresco, now filled with graffiti, as if to indicate the sense of both a general timelessness and a particular falling into disrepair. But the story’s real passion, that between the lovers, is icy. Little hint of romanticism, of headlong desire, touches the hearts of Juliet and her Romeo.
Leveaux tries to gin up the proceedings, not only by fire but raucousness. Romeo busts in on a motorcycle and his friends are packed with testosterone yet the entire enterprise is, as Mercutio says, “as thin of substance as the air.” One longs for poetry, for feeling.
To his credit, Bloom speaks his speeches with an overlay of lyricism. Rashad, a fine actress elsewhere, seems overwhelmed. But it’s the names below the title that impress; Bret Carver’s practical Friar, Jayne Houdyshell’s tough-nut Nurse, Chuck Cooper’s fiery Lord Capulet, Christian Camargo’s effete Mercutio, Corey Hawkins’ crackling Tybalt, Conrad Kemp’s empathetic Benvolio and Roslyn Ruff’s nerve-wracked Lady Capulet bring a measure of belief to the evening.
The news is even less favorable off-Broadway. At the Classic Stage Company, director Tea Alagić can’t forge the actors into a unit. Yet, although they don’t seem to be on the same page, there are occasional pleasures like Daphne Rubin-Vega’s amusing spitfire Nurse, T. R. Knight’s over-wrought Mercutio, David Garison’s powerful Lord Capulet, Kathryn Meisle’s vivacious Lady Capulet, Daniel Davis’ eloquent Friar and Stan Demidoff’s warm Paris.
On the more positive side, the idea of heavenly stars defied and envied as metaphors for life and death comes through with clarity. But the sparse production is otherwise devoid of ideas. Played against a blank wall, weapons of destruction are non-existent (although there’s lots of blood), Juliet’s bed is a table and there’s not even a suggestion of a balcony.
None of this would matter if the dialogue were spoken with awareness that this is a transcendent love story as well as a lesson in community. Both productions just sit there, tedious and unencumbered. Is it too much to ask for just a touch of eloquence?
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 19, 2013