If Al Pacino’s performance as Shylock sometimes seems one-note, that note is piercingly effective. It’s called humanity. And it’s the lynchpin of Daniel Sullivan’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Delacorte Theater.
Shylock is a monster. He’s lent Antonio (Byron Jennings) three thousand ducats to finance his friend Bassanio’s (Hamish Linklater) courtship of Portia (Lily Rabe). Antonio’s forfeiture entitles Shylock to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, and he wants his due.
Pacino illuminates the victim behind the venom. With the intonation of a pushcart vendor from the Lower East Side, his Shylock is loud and whiney, vitriolic and twisted, but we see how he got that way. He’s a battered child, a man who’s been humiliated by the supposedly righteous Antonio and others of his ilk.
As Portia, who masquerades as a man to prevent Shylock from prevailing, Rabe lets her contralto voice glide over Shakespeare’s verse like honey, and she and Linklater generate scorching heat and sly humor in the course of their courtship. But as much as the play is a comedy, it’s the tragic spirit of Shylock that prevails.