NEW YORK — MEASURE FOR MEASURE Comedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Mark Lamos. DUKE VINCENTIO picks up the phone, presses the intercom button, summons the venerable Escalus, and orders Angelo to appear. With a few terse lines, Shakespeare sets in motion the plot of ``Measure for Measure.''
And with the simple prop, director Mark Lamos establishes the time and colloquial tone of the revival at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The concept transforms the Viennese Duke and his courtiers into a kind of somber-garbed corporate board, with Vincentio as chief executive officer.
Such revisionism apart, ``Measure for Measure'' unfolds on the whole faithfully as a latter-day director's vision of the dark comedy.
The results are reasonably effective, even though they involve inevitable incongruities and (for this viewer) offer no particularly new insights or revelations. The principal effect of the Lamos approach is to emphasize a point of view and to confirm the timelessness of Shakespeare's mordant tale of authority misused and zeal corrupted by lust.
`MEASURE FOR MEASURE'' tells how Duke Vincentio (Len Cariou) takes mystifying leave of Vienna after appointing as his deputy the hitherto irreproachable Angelo (Campbell Scott). ``Mortality and mercy in Vienna/Live in thy tongue and heart,'' counsels the Duke. Instead, Angelo begins a rigorous enforcement of the city's long neglected morality laws, reimposing such penalties as the death sentence for illicit sex. The first victim is Claudio (Bradley Whitford), whose betrothed Juliet (Gabriella Diaz-Farrar) he has made pregnant.
The arrest leads Claudio's sister Isabella (Kate Burton), a convent novice, to plead with Angelo for her brother's life. Unmoved at first, a dismayed Angelo discovers that he is beginning to find her physical attractions irresistible. If Isabella will give herself to him, Angelo promises to spare Claudio.
The Duke, meanwhile, returns to Vienna disguised as a white-robed friar, a masquerade which enables him to keep informed of Isabella's plight and Angelo's dereliction - finally to perform a last-minute rescue and resolution.
``Measure for Measure'' parallels the perils of Isabella and Claudio with bawdy interludes involving such low comedy characters as the gossiping Lucio (played by Reggie Thomas as a Harlem dude), the blundering Constable Elbow (Thomas Ikeda giving a jolly Oriental touch to a minor Dogberry), and Pompey the bawd (Jack Weston all slovenly insolence).
Mr. Lamos's New York-y Vienna is nothing if not contemporaneously cosmopolitan and interracial. Yet no directorial device can redeem ``Measure for Measure'' from the cynicism, ambivalence, and contorted contrivances of what Coleridge called ``the single exception to the delightfulness of Shakespeare's plays.''
WHETHER in or out of disguise, Mr. Cariou's crisply spoken Duke is a formidable authority figure and a master manipulator right up to the final moment. Miss Burton (though not always audible from where I sat) does what she can to win sympathy for the beleaguered yet scarcely sympathetic Isabella. Mr. Scott is a youthful, deceptively mild-seeming Angelo. Deryl Caitlyn makes a good impression as the trustworthy Provost, and Mr. Hall's Escalus is the kind of discreet elder statesman every Vincentio needs.
Scenery and costume designer John Conklin's setting, with a rear panorama suggested by the paintings of Cy Twombly, meets the director's demand for abstract starkness, to which Pat Collins's lighting also contributes. Mel Marvin composed the incidental music.
Scheduled to run until May 7, ``Measure for Measure'' marks the New York debut of the veteran Mr. Lamos, currently artistic director of the Hartford Stage.