William Shakespeare wrote one play entirely about sex: “Measure for Measure,” his darkest and most troubling comedy.
The Duke of Vienna forbids his citizens to practice it outside marriage. Nun-in-training Isabella renounces it. Her brother, Claudio, languishes in prison for having had it with the wrong woman. Angelo, the Duke’s deputy, feels its disturbing allure for the first time when he meets Isabella.
The pimp and prostitute Pompey and Mistress Overdone sell it. And Lucio, who serves as a smutty narrator, talks of little else.
So Charlotte Shakespeare’s transportation of the play to a 20th-century Vienna that looks like 1970s Times Square makes a kind of sense. Elliot LaPlante’s set consists of hanging ads for Falstaff Beer, Earl of Kent cigarettes and a porn theater playing “The Winter Tail.” Lucio (aptly sleazy Chad Calvert) hosts a radio talk show full of scurrilous gossip. Only occasionally does the concept go awry: Talk of hanging makes no sense when we see someone rig an electric chair.
Director Tiger Reel keeps the much-trimmed play flowing by focusing it squarely on illicit relationships and their consequences. The Superfly-style Pompey and Overdone fit well in this setting, though the cast exudes a chaste bawdiness: Nobody generates erotic heat.
Yet Reel has removed the moral compass of the play. Like Prospero in “The Tempest,” the Duke’s a good man who has neglected proper administration of his realm. So he leaves Angelo in charge, both to test his deputy and let Angelo apply laws the Duke has been lax about enforcing. (That explanation is cut.)
In this version, the Duke consorts with whores and disappears to let talk about him cool down. He’s a fast-talking, oily hypocrite, a part Robert Lee Simmons can play well, but without dignity or gravity. His great monologue about letting go of life (“Be absolute for death...”) has been trimmed to a two-sentence aphorism he doesn’t believe himself.
Gretchen McGinty makes a touching Isabella, though the Angelo of Christian Casper (who handles his speeches well) doesn’t get unsettled enough by her presence. Devin Clark does valuable double duty as Claudio and Pompey, and two supporting players shine: Russell Rowe as a constable full of malapropisms and Leah Palmer-Licht as a forthright warden.
Too often, though, actors stumbled over their lines Thursday night. Reel has removed much of the play’s poetry and left mainly the narrative and the jokes; the least we can expect is a smoother delivery of them.