04/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Measure for Measure = Law & Order

Broadway ironies abound at the Duke on 42nd Street, where Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, presented by the Theatre for a New Audience, is playing until March 14.

One of its stars, Elisabeth Waterston, is truly splendid in the role of Isabella, who, like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, makes the case that Shakespeare may have wished to "kill all the lawyers," but apparently he also believed that if one's life is on the line it's better to have a merciful woman as an advocate than a rigidly by-the-book man. In seeking to spare her brother, Isabella calls for justice, but in the end stands not for judgment but rather forgiveness and mercy.

The judges who occupy 60 and 100 Centre Street here in New York City, mostly men, rarely reach such decisions.

Shakespearean scholars can debate whether Measure for Measure introduces the need for the rule of law rather than highlighting its limitations. In the meantime, this superb production at the Duke offers many fine moments in a setting that couldn't be more geographically appropriate. Much of the play conjures the brothels of old Vienna with its seediness and sordid crime. It wasn't too long ago, however, that 42nd Street itself was home to vagrants, junkies, and prostitutes--a red-light district flickering in the darkened shadows of Times Square--before Disney replaced the homeless with The Lion King.

And for rambunctious New Yorkers who have a sweet spot for crusading prosecutors, and even those who question whether Foley Square is the proper place to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Measure for Measure raises the question of what is justice in a world where rules are often arbitrarily applied and consistently abused. After all, this city (and state and country, for that matter) is no stranger to men who purport to live lives of honor and virtue and end up indicted, or publicly humiliated, for assorted crimes they zealously once condemned. (Think governors Sanford, Spitzer, and now Paterson.)

The reasons never end to cast doubt on the moral hypocrisy of failed human beings standing in judgment of those who are no less flawed. The leap of faith in the service of God seems a safer bet than the far more daring leap that is required believing in the goodness of man.

And the play, which takes its title from the biblical injunction of an "eye for an eye" and a "tooth for a tooth," where justice demands fair and exacting payment--measure for measure, no more and no less--leaves us all wondering: What is the correct measure of compensation--the debt to be redeemed, the payback undeniably owed--after 9/11? Could Shakespeare's characters convince the widows, orphans and adults who became childless on the day the World Trade Center collapsed that revenge is not the proper measurement of their loss?

As for children, this production of Measure for Measure is a poignant reminder that Elisabeth Waterston, in the role of Isabella, was cast neither against type nor family. Her famous father, Sam Waterston, America's beloved fictional New York Executive Assistant District Attorney (now District Attorney), Jack McCoy, has, for over 15 years, come to symbolize what the law in Law & Order means.

Like father like daughter, even in their fictional guises: Law & Order's McCoy, ruthlessly fixated on seeing that justice is done; his Shakespearean daughter and true namesake, Isabella from Measure for Measure, passionately aware of injustice, and yet willing to give even the monsters a second chance.