There’s a flash of skin for every flash of gunfire in director Daniel Sullivan’s modernized take on “Troilus and Cressida,” one of the Bard’s rarely produced “problem” plays - so called for the way it lurches from romance to comedy and tragedy.
The sweaty end to The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park season runs through Sunday at the Delacorte Theater, after an opening delayed by injury to one of the lead actors … the fellow playing Achilles, no less.
“Troilus and Cressida” is set during the seventh year of the Trojan War, as a prince vies for the affections of a strong and eventually willing woman. The romance between the title characters is largely subplot. Most of what transpires concerns the heroes of the Iliad, as they debate whether to return the captive Helen, or continue to fight.
Clearly, Sullivan (“Proof,” “Cymbeline”) has considered that his “Troilus” would run in sweltering August, assembling not just a cast of fine Public Theater vets, but a gaggle of buff and oiled up guys who look as if they strutted out of an Equinox gym.
“Troilus and Cressida” may not have made your college syllabus, and the director makes a key move that resolves any potential difficulties with familiarity: “Troilus” has been naturalized into 2016 idiom, making it delightfully easy to follow, if you don’t mind all the mugging that comes along with it.
We have a Cressida (Ismenia Mendes, playing hard-to-get) who downloads videos of hot soldiers alongside her leering uncle (the ever-marvelous John Glover, as Pandarus, the mischievous old rogue). Trojan fighters are clad in solid black police gear, while the Greeks don desert camouflage, when they’re wearing shirts at all.
The final 20 minutes of the second act are almost non-stop smoke and gunfire. My sole gripe with the production was an over-reliance on hand-to-hand combat sequences, which are difficult to pull off for extended periods without calling attention to their staginess.
For star wattage, “Troilus” offers up stage vet Corey Stoll as a suit-clad Ulysses (Netflix buffs will remember him being left to suffocate in a garage by Frank Underwood as the first season of “House of Cards” drew to a close).
Stoll, alongside John Douglas Thompson and Edward James Hyland, as older Greek fighters, shrewdly manipulate Achilles (Louis Cancelmi, with enough scruff to be confused for Adam Levine) into returning to the battlefield. How? By ignoring him, and focusing their attention on Ajax (played with lunkheaded dopeyness by Alex Breaux).
Andrew Burnap, as Troilus, nails the ideal of the noble but impetuous prince, accusing brother Hector (the excellent Bill Heck) of being a failure as a warrior for not routinely finishing off his enemies with a death blow.
Max Casella provides comic relief as Thersites, the vulgar and cynical Greek left to beg for his life in more situations than he probably prefers.
The LGBT elements of Greek mythology -- at least, what 21st century New Yorkers would call the “gay subtext” -- have been brought to the surface, particularly between Achilles and his companion, Patroclus (Tom Pecinka), whose murder at the hands of the Greeks dispels any possibility of a peaceful ending.
“Troilus and Cressida,” through Aug. 14 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Free tickets are distributed on site beginning at 12 p.m. on the day of each performance.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn