`Romeo' in Shakespeare marathon. Balcony easier to reach than dramatic heights

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Romeo and Juliet Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Les Waters. From the prologue's introduction of ``Two households, both alike in dignity,'' it is clear that director Les Waters intends to give the New York Shakespeare Festival production of ``Romeo and Juliet'' a colloquially conversational appeal.

The approach may be reasonable enough, given a company most of whose members (according to the Playbill credits) have had little or no experience in Shakespeare. If the festival's marathon has so far offered a delectable ``Midsummer Night's Dream'' and a debatable ``Julius Caesar,'' its third entry might be described as bourgeois provincial.

The ``star cross'd lovers'' are played with an ardor in which growing apprehension matches youthful passion. Cynthia Nixon is a Botticelli Juliet, a fair-haired vision of loveliness whose delicate looks belie her courage and commitment to love. Miss Nixon and Peter MacNicol, the Romeo of the revival, convey the tender rapture of the balcony scene and respond eloquently to certain of the demanding soliloquies.

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If Mr. MacNicol fails to scale the ultimate heights as easily as he does Juliet's balcony, it is chiefly because this fine but slightly built young character actor doesn't demonstrate the capacities of a romantic hero. One occasionally shares Friar Laurence's impatience with Romeo's penchant for hysteria.

A few performances stand out

The strengths of the revival at the Public/Anspacher rest on a few isolated performances rather than on a consistent ensemble standard.

The strengths include Milo O'Shea's endearing Friar Laurence, whose compassionate strategems produce the very tragedy he is trying to avert.

Stalwart veteran Anne Meara does a blowsy, low-comedy Nurse; Courtney B. Vance, a mincingly Dapper-Dan Mercutio; and Rob Knepper, a Tybalt with a lean, mean, and angry look. W.B. Brydon's stentorian Capulet could be heard all the way to Mantua. Michael Cumpsty (Prince Escalus), Bradley Whitford (Paris), and Peter Francis James (Benvolio) lend a certain style to the performance.

Energetic staging against a spare set

Mr. Waters's energetic staging wastes no opportunity for innuendo or vulgar gesture. (B.H. Barry's street fights are choreographed brawls.) The Heidi Landesman setting is spare to the point of starkness: a paved courtyard topped by balconied elevations.

Peter Kaczorowski's lighting ranges from blaze of noon to the sepulchral gloom of the churchyard in which the lovers ``Do with their deaths bury their parents' strife.'' Ann Hould-Ward designed the renaissance costumes. Tina Paul choreographed the Capulets' festive caperings.

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