Ethnic Conflict: Set in 1920s New York, this Merchant plumbs tensions between Italians and Jews.
Ethnic Conflict: Set in 1920s New York, this Merchant plumbs tensions between Italians and Jews.

The Merchant of Venice is so routinely interpreted these days as the tragedy of Shylock that it’s startling when director Ethan McSweeny opens his boisterous mounting of the play with a wordless, semi-choreographed reminder that the evening was conceived as—and remains at its heart—comic.

McSweeny places us in Little Italy, not Venice—New York’s Lower East Side just before the 1929 stock market crash, where Jewish and Italian immigrants vie for a piece of an American dream that looks to be equal parts flappers, hip flasks, and jazz. Newsboys scurry past cops on the beat; gangsters cluster on street corners; flashbulbs pop. If someone started singing “I got a horse right here…” the whole evening would head off into Damon Runyon territory.

Instead, Antonio (Derek Smith) says, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad,” and his Goombah buddies set to the business of cheering him up. Shylock won’t make his appearance for quite a while—not until after we’ve met Long Island heiress Portia (Julia Coffey), whose father left her three metal chests and a riddle for suitors to solve before she can marry. Antonio’s pal Bassanio (Drew Cortese) wants to try his luck at besting the rich swells for her hand, so Antonio stakes him by borrowing cash from Shylock (Mark Nelson), a reviled Jewish moneylender who offers him a deal that sounds like something the Corleone family might dream up: Repay in three months, or forfeit a pound of flesh. Though contract law is theoretically on his side, actually trying to collect gets Shylock stripped of everything that gives his life meaning.

Elizabethan audiences, for whom Jews were an oft-assailed “other,” could be counted on to regard this development as just desserts for an irredeemable monster—albeit one who had a way with empathetic speeches (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”)—not to mention as a happy ending for Venetian society. Modern audiences, though, can’t help seeing Venetian society as unforgivably anti-Semitic, so Shylock, who may not be blameless, but who is certainly powerless, becomes a victim. Play him with empathy, as most contemporary productions do, and the Bard’s merchant-centered comedy becomes the tragedy of its villain.

Except there’s a problem: Shakespeare’s done with Shylock a good half-hour before he’s done with everybody else. There’s a whole act after the trial scene, crammed with jokes about mistaken identities and cross-dressing wives, and if you’re playing those scenes as the capper to a tragedy, they can turn pretty sour.

So, what to do? McSweeny’s solution is to establish that both the Italians and the Jews are outcasts in 1920s Manhattan, so the nastiness they direct at each other is just the feuding of dueling immigrant groups. Portia—a blue-blooded WASP who seems to have stepped on stage directly from the pages of The Great Gatsby—can’t be bothered with the squabbles of these expat Mediterraneans at first. She just whips out her checkbook to solve their petty little debt problem, until it becomes clear that her sweetheart’s really upset that his friend’s about to lose a pound of flesh, and she needs to step in and actually solve things. Her prosecution of Shylock in the trial scene is flat-out nasty once she’s found a weak point in his contract, and the cheers and jeers from onlookers as she nails the Jew again and again make it sound as if she’s home-team ref at a soccer match.

The approach makes Portia pretty unattractive, and it’s a credit to Coffey and her director that they don’t try to soften her edges by making her flighty or offhand, except for an early bit of silliness that finds her dropping clothes on the floor absentmindedly as her maids scramble to clean up. Elsewhere, she’s persuasively tone-deaf, dismissing one suitor—an amusingly full-of-himself Moroccan aviator played by Carl Cofield—in a manner that makes her line about his “complexion”—usually played as an echo of something the Moroccan has said—sound racist.

With the sneering-at-outsiders ground rules thus established from on high, the chief antagonists are free to lean less on nuance than they do in many productions. Smith’s louche, unapologetically biased Antonio makes no attempt to camouflage his contempt for the Jew he’s borrowing from; Nelson’s intense, squinting Shylock snarls and fumes, occasionally letting a mirthless laugh escape his lips early in the evening, but growing increasingly implacable.

Nobody’s a good guy in this crowd, least of all Aubrey Deeker’s jeering Gratiano, who snatches Shylock’s yarmulke from his head in a gesture that drew gasps from the crowd at the final preview performance, just moments before he engages in bright comic banter with his new wife about a missing wedding ring. With so many characters ranging from insensitive to reprehensible, comedy’s no more or less appropriate than it is in, say, South Park.

This proves a workable if not a particularly ingratiating approach at Sidney Harman Hall, where designer Andrew Lieberman centers a massive industrial-steel setting on a stage-dominating staircase that suggests upward mobility. (Portia spends much of her time a few steps above the rabble.) Steven Cahill’s sound design provides the madcap roar of the ’20s with swooning jazz-age stylings. The production is robust, clear, and occasionally less than psychologically subtle, but it’s all of a piece.

A dozen years ago, Michael Kahn staged a Merchant for this same company with Hal Holbrook as a sly, inveigling Shylock opposite Keith Baxter’s closeted gay Antonio, who was all-too-clearly in love with the handsome Ken doll for whom he’d placed himself in debt. Surrounded by thuggish young studs whose viciousness toward outsiders made him guard his own reputation, that Antonio had a good deal in common with Shylock; both men had to negotiate survival in a Venice awash with violent prejudices. It was an approach that seemed entirely appropriate for the end of the Clinton era, with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in full force, and same-sex marriage not yet legal anywhere on the planet.

With gay marriage now the law of the land in both D.C. and New York, that particular read on the play perhaps has less currency today—there’s barely a hint of physical attraction between the two friends in the current production—but immigration’s enough of a hot-button issue that ethnic rivalries serve the story just fine.