"The Merchant," in which a convincing case defending Shylock the moneylender is argued by British, Jewish playwright Arnold Wesker, is at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.
Shakespeare it's not, but it's a witty approach, substituting the stereotype of the philosophical Jew for the one of the avaricious Jew and extending Portia's cleverness from court into her personal life.
The production has more than the usual tryout problems because of the recent death of Zero Mostel, who was to have been its star. The blocking is obviously designed for his special talents, and the pacing is not quite right yet.
To relieve the talkiness of the play, much fancy business was devised. Shylock illustrates his philosophy by throwing fruit and furniture about. In a scene set in the shop of Antonio the merchant, minor characters become entangled in bolts of cloth as they talk. In Shylock's scene, a huge, boisterous overbearing figure like Mostel could carry this off, but Joseph Leon, while delightful, is small and jumpy. But as the other shop scene indicates, it may also be a problem of pace - the speeches, necessarily lengthy for complicated arguments, slow the funny business down.
It's still well worth seeing - just not the grand show it may yet become.