It is a forgivable mistake to read The Comedy of Errors as an unadulterated comedy, even though it opens with the threat of execution: if Egeon (Jonathan Hadary), a merchant from Syracuse, cannot raise his ransom by five o’clock, he will be killed in accordance with the law of Ephesus, which does not allow her Syracusean neighbors within her city. In 1938, underlining the dread of this first scene, Theodore Komisarjevsky staged a production in Stratford-upon-Avon in which a giant clock constantly reminded the audience of the potential tragedy. But readers and viewers of The Comedy of Errors can hardly be faulted for ignoring this dread; what follows is (apart from some parallel investigations into the relationship between master and slave and husband and wife) a parade of silliness: two sets of twins, mistaken identities, phenomenal verbal juggling, and an ending that leaves nearly all involved content.
Which is why Daniel Sullivan’s revival at the Delacorte Theater is so thoroughly baffling. The Comedy of Errors is already Shakespeare’s broadest comedy, and yet the director, as if he has no faith in the text, inserts a series of easy gags that cheapen the work and form the husk of this production: spaghetti is plopped on heads, water is thrown in faces, asses are slapped, and pratfalls are taken; there are even nuns with guns—this isn’t Shakespeare, it’s the Keystone Cops.
Still, some choices are inspired. Mr. Sullivan resets the play in 1920s upstate New York (being able to retain most of the place-names: Utica, Syracuse, Ithaca, Troy) and this city of “curious arts” becomes a hub for the mafia. The Duke (Skipp Sudduth) reads Shakespeare like Don Vito might have, debts owed carry more menace than they would have in ancient Ephesus, and dancers boogie during scene changes. Casting Hamish Linklater as both Antipholuses and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as both Dromios—a bad idea on paper—in fact aids the dramatic irony, and Mr. Sullivan has a rather brilliant way of solving the appearance of all four characters in the final scene.
Mr. Ferguson, carrying the bulk of the play’s comedy, begins dreadfully. He is too needy and preening, adding unnecessary, cute actions to his lines that distract us from his language. Fortunately, he pulls back by the play’s funniest scene—in which Dromio of Syracuse describes the kitchen wench Nell (Mr. Sudduth), who is married to Dromio of Epheseus and confuses him for her husband—though Mr. Sullivan makes the wretched mistake of casting Mr. Sudduth in the part; Nell never appears in Shakespeare’s play, and she lives much better in our imagination as an ideal monstrosity than onstage as a fat man in drag. Mr. Linklater is quite consistently good as the befuddled straight man. Emily Bergl, as Adriana, is weak, too singsong in her rhyming lines, though Heidi Schreck, playing Luciana, is good in her scenes with Mr. Linklater.
When it is good, it is very indeed, but when it is bad it is horrid. This Comedy of Errors succeeds in its smaller moments—like when Mr. Linklater amiably and cluelessly waves to a character who his twin just had arrested, when Mr. Ferguson, ever the servant, adjusts a lopsided lamp after jumping off a balcony, or when Mr. Sudduth, after loudly refusing Egeon’s ransom money, quietly takes it anyway. But the bigger it tries to be the more it fails, and sometimes, like Nell, the production becomes “the mountain of mad flesh” that Dromio of Syracuse battles in his brother’s bedroom.