Any “Romeo & Juliet” will rise or fall on the chemistry of its leads, and in that light, the newest take on Shakespeare’s tragic lovers, now open at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, ranks a notch or so ahead of its more-publicized Broadway counterpart.
Of course, there’s no need to compare the two, nor much they have in common. You won't find this Romeo riding a motorcycle, that's for sure. While watching this spare downtown work, I imagined the young Montague was a sophomore over at elite Stuyvesant High School, figuring out how he could woo that flirty, urbane senior he’d been eyeing all semester.
There’s no time frame or location specified in director Tea Alagić’s edgy production, which she has said is inspired by her experiences as a young adult just removed from Bosnia during its war: “The war of my parents’ generation.” It’s clearly contemporary, a fact driven home during a costume ball scene at the Capulets’ digs that evokes some wild romp in a Chelsea nightclub.
What else is clear? The focused performances from the titular leads: Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, and star of the coming “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”) and Julian Cihi, a talented newcomer recently graduated from NYU’s Tisch School and relocated from within the cast after actor Finn Wittrock departed for a film role.
The hit-and-miss supporting players include “Grey’s Anatomy” vet T.R. Knight as a bipolar Mercutio, and Broadway vet Daphne Rubin-Vega (“Rent,” etc.), playing Juliet’s caretaker nurse as a spitfire Latina caricature dangerously tottering in platform heels.
Olsen, for her part, prefers boots: stomping, black, militaristic footwear that visually runs counter to the billowy white dress she wears, a combination that exudes beauty and toughness. This Juliet is in command of her sensuality, and her man -- yet she's inevitably overcome by the catastrophic forces of hormones and parental expectations.
The winning Cihi brings enough savvy and charm that you believe him as a contemporary romantic lead. He's dressed like the kid you're standing in line behind for a ramen burger at Smorgasburg. Still, Romeo is Tybalt’s killer. Dion Mucciacito’s chiseled cousin, who appears in the first scene shirtless and tattooed, looks like he could break the far slighter Cihi in two. (Cihi was to have played Tybalt.)
Knight’s Mercutio is an accented court jester prone to erratic movements and bursts of violence. Life has been rough with him; if he were to enter your subway car, you would stand and leave. The performance is risky and fun. Less appealing was Rubin-Vega’s take on the nurse, who seems downright predatory when she lusts after Romeo. Theater message boards are ripe with comparisons to Sofia Vergara, which isn’t off the mark.
Daniel Davis (TV’s “The Nanny”) and David Garrison (neighbor Steve from “Married With Children”) bring more traditional Shakespearean elements to the production as Friar Laurence and Lord Capulet, respectively. Davis in particular lends gravitas to the connection shared by the doomed twosome. You’ll want him as your therapist.
Kathryn Meisle, in fuchsia and leopard print heels, does Lady Capulet as one of “The Real Housewives of Verona.” Alagić has taken liberties with the character's fondness for Tybalt, making him the object of her desire.
Clint Ramos’ eclectic costumes bring levity to the masked ball, where Romeo dons a Pooh headpiece to conceal his identity. The scenic design is barely perceptible: there are a handful of chairs on stage, and a couple of tables. This sparsity forces the audience to pay heed to the dialogue, because there just isn’t that much to look at -- and for the actors, nothing to hide behind.
“Romeo & Juliet,” through Nov. 10 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. Tickets: $60 and up. Call 212-352-3101 or visit classicstage.org.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn