NEW YORK -- Sometimes, being a good sport onstage is almost as important as being good. And Denzel Washington proves himself a generous man indeed in Broadway's frequently gripping, modern-dress "Julius Caesar," which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre.
Washington's Brutus, the noblest of the Roman conspirators who ambush Caesar and slice him to bloody ribbons, is far from the most technically adept of the performances in Daniel Sullivan's enjoyable if not-quite-airtight production. The actor, who got his start on the New York stage, has manly authority to spare. But apart from an occasional roar, this is one tame lion. The portrayal feels hemmed in; it occupies too little emotional space. As the wolf pack of Brutus's enemies closes in, Washington maintains a heroic bearing yet falls short of a compelling account of the inner man, of the escalating anguish that would compel Brutus to turn his dagger on himself.
Denzel Washington, left, stars as Brutus, with Patrick Page as Decius Brutus and William Sadler as Caesar in a modern-dress "Julius Caesar" on Broadway.
He does, however, lend the production his formidable Hollywood radiance. It's clear that Shakespeare would not have made it back to Broadway this season without him. His agreeing to participate in this heavily pre-sold engagement guarantees paychecks for a cast of 30 at least until the show's advertised end on June 12. Even more impressive is the room the star makes for lesser-known actors. Chief among the beneficiaries is Eamonn Walker, whose deeply felt Mark Antony is the production's revelation.
The dependable Sullivan, director of Broadway successes such as "Proof" and the Cherry Jones-Gabriel Byrne revival of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," goes here where many directors have gone before. He spins Shakespeare's political tragedy as a contemporary thriller. The Rome he imagines, and that the set designer Ralph Funicello evokes, is one of those modern capitals-in-ruins, Beirut or Grozny or Baghdad, where endless bloodletting has reduced the mentality of the ruling elite to that of a network of well-dressed street gangs.
What sets Sullivan's streamlined version apart is its muscular grasp of the cinematic. The approach works best in the rising action of the first half of the play, when Cassius (Colm Feore) recruits the conspirators and launches the plans for the massacre of Caesar (William Sadler). The attention to telling detail is exceptional. Often, props in modern productions of Shakespeare are brandished for easy laughs, but here they are carefully chosen to advance the plot. The assassins, for example, meeting at Brutus's house, affirm their intentions by dropping their knives into a briefcase.
Keep your eye on that satchel. It becomes as vital to the outcome as a misplaced chalice of poison is in "Hamlet." The object, in a sense, comes between Brutus and his distraught wife, Portia (Jessica Hecht). As she begs her husband to be let in on the scheme, the stoical Washington clutches the briefcase handle as if holding tight to the secret. Later, in Sullivan's most inspired scene, the briefcase will be smuggled past security guards with metal-detecting wands and into the backroom meeting at which Caesar will be slaughtered. It pays to follow what's going on under the table as much as what's happening above it.
There are other finely staged incidents, including the sequence in which a mob bludgeons the wrong man to death. The best involves Walker's sterling oration over Caesar's coffin, the famous "Lend me your ears" speech. It's the play's bravura moment, and Walker's effusive emotionality seems right for the occasion.
His agony feels real here. You believe that Mark Antony is both stricken and in a bind. And a satisfying payoff does come after he wins the rabble over with a skillful skewering of the "honorable men" who have attempted to rationalize the murder of Caesar.
The speech, delivered just before intermission, is not only a satisfying high point, it's also the production's final high point. What's left for the audience is the second act's diminishing returns, a series of battle sequences, presented as automatic-weapons fire and house-to- house combat, and Marc Antony's pursuit of Cassius and Brutus. The manhunt proves less and less compelling as it focuses ever more intensively on Brutus and his psyche. Washington's visceral style is not well suited to an examination of a character's moral and psychological breakdown, and so a mostly bang-up production ends with a whimper.
Warring techniques are something of a problem in this production, too. Some actors sing their lines in the classic British style, while others opt for a more conversational American approach. Feore, with his crisp consonants, and Washington rattling his lines off rapid-fire, rarely sound as if they are in the same play. Nevertheless, a number of actors turn in strong portrayals, among them Jack Willis, as a poisonous Casca, and Sadler, in fine form as a scrappy Caesar.
Though Washington gets top billing -- his name is the only one over the title -- the performance is no mere act of vanity. It's a sincere if flawed attempt. But if it brings his fans to Shakespeare, that's not a bad result at all.
Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Mimi Jordan Sherin; music and sound, Dan Moses Schreier. With Tamara Tunie, Patrick Page, David Cromwell, Peter Jay Fernandez, Maurice Jones, Kelly AuCoin. Approximately 2 hours 35 minutes. Through June 12 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250 or visit www.Telecharge.com/juliuscaesar.