The hero comes on -- nay, rides on, atop a vintage Triumph motorcycle -- shouting over the engine's vroom. Torn jeans, white open-necked shirt, black hoodie, looking all the world like a rebel without a cause only without a cigarette pack tucked in his sleeve. Also, he wears spiffy cordovan shoes and -- we later discover -- bright red socks and purple undies. What country, friends, is this?, as Mr. Shakespeare used to say. What character? O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, that's where, being played on a spare set dominated by a peeling wall of religious frescoes strewn with graffiti (in English, Chinese and Greek) and fitted with rock-climbing handles so that the battling Montagues and Capulets of old Verona can rumble beneath, upon, and atop said wall.
This is the world David Leveaux has conjured in Broadway's first full-scale Romeo and Juliet since the Old Vic production was imported to the Winter Garden in 1956, with John Neville and Claire Bloom. (There has been, in the interval, a small-scale production at Circle in the Square in 1977 and a 1986 Joe Papp version directed by Estelle Parsons at the Belasco which was restricted to student audiences. More recently, Rupert Goold's RSC production visited the Lincoln Center Festival in 2011.)
Nobody would likely mistake Orlando Bloom, of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, for John Neville. But when our motorcycle-Romeo removes his helmet, Bloom it is with curls falling into his eyes when he gets excited and a grandly authentic British accent (which doesn't, alas, match the other British accents on stage). Bloom, who trained for the stage before launching his film career, acquits himself adequately as the star-crossed young lover; someone cast him to play it and directed him to play it, and that's what he does. (The question here is not wherefore art thou Romeo? but whyfore art thou Romeo?) Bloom is not a Romeo you'll remember next year, or next awards season either, but Broadway is always thrilled to welcome big box office movie stars. Maybe he'll come back again soon -- but please, not in yet another Cat on a Hat Tin Roof.
Surely nobody would likely mistake Condola Rashad for Claire Bloom (no relation to Orlando, methinks). For obvious reasons; Ms. Rashad wouldn't have been cast as Juliet in 1956, not on Broadway. Performance-wise, though, this new Juliet holds her own, but there is only so much she can do in this time-indeterminate, dark-and-dank Romeo of Leveaux's. Those of us who have seen her in Ruined, Stick Fly and The Trip to Bountiful know that Rashad is an actor to watch.
Jayne Houdyshell, as Juliet's Nurse, also overcomes the strictures of the production. She is directed to play in different eras -- at one point, Leveaux has her enter on a red Schwinn bicycle with a baguette in the basket -- but Houdyshell nevertheless believes every minute of it. Chuck Cooper, as Papa Capulet, is given cutesy things to do early on, like a moment when he dances a little jig in anticipation of his big party. When we get past the murder of Tybalt, though, Cooper is allowed to act and does powerfully well. Give this man some strong dramatic roles -- but please, not another Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. None of the others in the company of 22 stand out, but then they are all presumably doing as they were told.
Leveaux and designer Jesse Poleshuck have set the production in a no man's land dominated by that fresco -- which splits, flies and reconfigures itself -- and an architecturally implausible balcony unlike any I've ever seen along the streets of Verona or elsewhere. There is also stunning use of two troughs of flame, one that flies in and out horizontally and another within a tall vertical cylinder. Very 16th century, yes; but why, in that case, do they walk around with hiker's flashlights in the final scenes? It is fine to transplant Shakespeare's play to modern times, but if Leveaux has a compelling concept it doesn't come across. He does, though, seem familiar with Jerry Robbins' playground clashes in West Side Story.
Let us add that the Nederlanders have transformed the Richard Rodgers -- formerly the 46th Street Theatre -- into a prime showplace awash with reds, grays and burnished golds, with flashes of turquoise. Maybe there is something to be said for that pesky "facility fee" they add to the ticket price, after all.