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BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Daniel Sullivan's wonderful production of "The Merchant of Venice" has moved indoors from Central Park, and in the process acquired new levels of depth and richness.

In his staging, Sullivan has taken a problematic play and made it a cohesive whole, blending several concurrent plots, comedy, romance, and politics into a fluid and enthralling production.

As he usually does, Sullivan directs his cast to find the essential truths of the characters, knowing that in doing this, the play's many inconsistencies won't matter. We simply don't question why the wealthy Portia, having found a husband through a byzantine puzzle created by her late father, should suddenly dress as a lawyer and go save Antonio, her husband's benefactor, from a claim by Shylock that would end Antonio's life. We don't even fully know why Shylock hates Antonio so much he would enter into such a bargain in the first place. Yet because Sullivan has fully realized each character, these questions don't arise.

"Lombardi" scores on many levels while "Merchant" shines on all

Since the summer, Al Pacino's Shylock has been burnished and refined to be more contained and even more powerful. Yes, Shylock is vengeful, but we also feel for him both as a man and in the context of his world. Lily Rabe as Portia is magnificent, fully mastering the many colors of a character who ranges from girlish glee to mature reasoning. She balances the lyricism of the language with spellbinding humanity; Rabe is one of our most accomplished contemporary leading ladies.

The supporting cast remains equally outstanding, notably Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano and Christopher Fitzgerald as the clown Launcelot Gobo. Mark Wendland's set adapted from the Delacorte Theater version wonderfully accommodates the lighter and darker aspects of the play, as does Kenneth Posner's excellent lighting. Jess Goldstein's costumes set the play near the turn of the 20th century.

Tickets are scarce, and the limited run is scheduled only through January 9. This is a production that should not be missed.

Football is not the main event in the new biographical play "Lombardi," now at Circle in the Square. Rather, it is the story of a marriage and a relationship and particularly of the woman who loved her man so much she gave up her life in sophisticated New York to move to a comparative backwater in support of her husband's dream. Think of the classic TV series "Green Acres," except with many more freezing cold days and not so many idiosyncratic supporting characters.

Eric Simonson's play is based on the biography of the famous coach, "When Pride Still Mattered: A Biography of Vince Lombardi." To make it theatrical, Simonson has concocted a story about a young reporter, Michael McCormick, sent to profile Lombardi for Look magazine, a pictorial magazine that competed with Life for many years. McCormick wants to get the "real" story behind the mercurial coach, and so he sets out to shadow Lombardi and interview the people in his life.

Despite this literary device, the play remains almost entirely expository, the only dramatic tension arising from whether McCormick will write the piece he wants or if his editor, a friend of Lombardi's, will coerce him to write a puff piece. (It's established early on that Lombardi is prickly about critical pieces.)

The result is a slight but entertaining evening, thanks to the fine performances by the three leading actors.

Judith Light plays Marie Lombardi, a housewife from New Jersey at a time when being a wife meant yoking herself to her husband's career and dreams. While she may have followed him to the hinterlands, Marie is no pushover. She sees him as he is and loves him for it all, regarding her life with open eyes, an open heart, and plenty of perspective, even if sometimes fueled - and made palatable -- by copious cocktails.

Light's performance is a marvel, filled with humor and nuance. In the cavernous space of Circle in the Square, she manages a level of intimacy and presence that is remarkable. Her Marie is fast with a wisecrack but fierce in defense of her husband, and it is through her that we see her husband humanized.

Keith Knobbs does a fine job as McCormick. A passionate football fan, his hero worship gives way to a deeper understanding of Lombardi and the effect he has on the players around him.

Dan Lauria is wonderful as the sometimes-volcanic Lombardi who loves his players and his wife with all of his being. Over the course of the 90-minute play, Lauria gives us a full portrait of a man in all his colors, never over-playing.

We also see some of Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, but those scenes are the least successful and most labored of the piece, though the actors are fine in the roles.

The exceptional costume design is by David Tazewell, who makes Light look fabulous in the period '60s clothes, and the spare but effective set is by David Korins.

Going in, I had assumed the subject matter would make an evening at the theater attractive to husbands otherwise not interested, but the surprise is that this play is very much a chick flick in football drag.

Complete Information:

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Broadhurst Theatre

235 W. 44th St.

Through Jan. 9

Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.

Fri.-Sat. 8 at p.m.;

Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m.

$66.50-$141.50;telecharge.com

Or 212-239-6200

LOMBARDI

Circle in the Square

1633 Broadway at 50th St.

Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.

Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.

$115.00; telecharge.com

Or 212-239-6200

Updated 8:15 pm, August 29, 2018
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