Review: Sitcom Stars Enliven Public’s Antic “Comedy of Errors”

Season's first Shakespeare in the Park production, starring Linklater and Ferguson, is a polished physical comedy

Joan Marcus

It’s been more than 20 years since “The Comedy of Errors” was performed in Central Park, and if you’re going to wait that long to bring it back, you’d better do so with the right actors playing Shakespeare’s most famous set of twins.

Luckily, the Public Theater has enlisted Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, a pair of affable Shakespeare in the Park vets, for the first offering of the season at the Delacorte Theater.

Both skilled physical comedians, Linklater and Ferguson honed their chops on TV sitcoms, the former during five seasons as the put-upon brother in “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” and the latter as mild-mannered attorney Mitchell Pritchett in the ongoing “Modern Family.”

Here, the duo don period costumes -- though not quite the period you were expecting -- for the Bard’s early slapstick comedy about two sets of identical twins separated as children, who now live as master-servant pairs in neighboring cities. The sets of twins share the same names, Antipholus (Linklater) and Dromio (Ferguson), and a classic farce of mistaken identity ensues when one of the pairs crosses the border to look for the other.

For the speedy 90-minute production, director Daniel Sullivan has time-shifted the action to an era of Speakeasies and gangsters, where even habit-wearing abbesses carry automatic weapons. Performance interludes include swing dancers and big band music from Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. 

While Shakespeare’s text sets the story in the ancient Mediterranean city Ephesus, the events here have been relocated to upstate New York: the visitors from Syracuse arrive in Ephesus on an Adirondack Transit Lines bus, which an advertisement notes also serves communities including Utica, Ithaca and Troy. The local picture house is playing the Eddie Cantor flick “Roman Scandals.”

Linklater and Ferguson performed together here most recently in 2010’s repertory “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale,” and their familiarity with the surroundings can only serve to ease the burden of their biggest challenge: here, the two step into four roles usually played by four different actors.

The lanky, self-effacing Linklater and the fussy Ferguson are well paired as master and servant, though it can be confusing to keep track of just which Antipholus and which Dromio are on stage at a given moment. Linklater proves most adept at making the distinction, altering his voice to distinguish between his two “Antipholi.” His Antipholus of Ephesus, on home turf, is clearly the alpha male of the group.

Both actors have ample opportunity to show off their clownish talents. It is as entertaining to watch Linklater dump of a bowl of spaghetti over Ferguson’s head (a scene between the master and servant from Syracuse) as it is to watch Ferguson’s Dromio of Syracuse scamper down a building facade to escape the come-hithering of his brother’s ugly paramour.

Toward the play’s end, Linklater offers a breathless monologue summarizing the events of the day that will have you hanging on every word. Ferguson’s finest moment comes as his Dromio of Syracuse -- that is, the visiting servant -- encounters Nell, the “kitchen wench” (veteran actor Skipp Sudduth, in drag) with whom his brother is romantically entwined. The visiting Dromio does not share his brother’s attraction for the beastly maid, and scurries off to his master, explaining: “I know not what use to put her to, but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light.”

The real payoff with this production comes when we arrive at the only scene in Shakespeare’s text in which the two sets of twins appear on stage at the same time. That’s the trick fans of this play will be wondering about going in, given the unusual approach to casting Sullivan has employed. The director and his two actors pull off the stunt in a clever way, and that’s all we’ll say about the matter.

As Egeon, the father of the Antipholus twins sentenced to death for crossing into Ephesus, Jonathan Hadary (“Gypsy”) is endearing, and makes you hope his life will be spared. Sudduth (“Third Watch”), while most memorable as Nell, is commanding and threatening as the Duke, who sentences Egeon to death.

Emily Bergl, Heidi Schreck and De’adre Aziza all turn in strong performances as the women -- shrewish wife, sister and sultry courtesan, respectively -- with whom the two Antipholus twins are variously involved.

Toni-Leslie James’ costumes evoke memories of double-breasted suit-wearing baddies from “Dick Tracy,” with a dash of “Gatsby” for good measure. My companion for the evening couldn’t help but wonder if the bowler-bedecked Ferguson plucked his bow-tie directly from the actor’s own Tie the Knot collection, benefiting Marriage Equality.

John Lee Beatty’s cartoonish set has the action taking place in three two-story buildings that revolve, offering a different facade depending on the scene. An excellent sight gag during the comedy’s set-up has actor Hadary pulling outsized props from a small briefcase to describe the shipwreck that separated the twins in the first place.

With a no-holds barred commitment to physical comedy, the good-natured sitcom stars appearing at the Delacorte make “The Comedy of Errors” a sparkling and sure bet for a summer night.

“The Comedy of Errors,” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, through June 30. Tickets are free and are distributed two per day at the theater beginning at 12 p.m. on the day of each performance. See for more information.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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