Lawrence Frascella
August 02, 2002 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Until recently, it wasn’t so easy for the time-consuming, seldom-lucrative theater to attract busy stars from all over the media map. But even in Broadway’s less celebrity-dense days, the career-enhancing allure of New York’s free, outdoor Shakespeare in the Park productions could always draw them in (occasionally like moths to a flame). This yearly event represents America’s single, consistent, high-profile commitment to Shakespeare. And this summer, Julia Stiles, Jimmy Smits, Christopher Lloyd, Kristen Johnston (3rd Rock From the Sun), and Zach Braff (Scrubs) are only some of the names that have been enticed — all in the service of the master’s most crowd-pleasing comedy.

The Public Theater, which bestows this great annual gift on the city, has decided to revisit Twelfth Night — a funny, fizzy, amazingly modern play replete with gender-bending, tons of irony, and a significant gay character. The plot is outrageously convoluted and absurd. But if handled right, there’s real uplift in its insanity. It concerns a twin brother (Braff) and his identical sister (Stiles) who are separated in a shipwreck. To survive, Stiles cuts her hair and pretends to be a boy (shades of Shakespeare in Love). She joins the court of a handsome, melancholy count (Smits) for whom she immediately falls. But the count pines for an equally melancholy countess (Kathryn Meisle), who in turn yearns for Stiles, convinced that she’s a man. Things grow even more twisted when twin-brother Braff returns to the scene, roaming the countryside consistently mistaken for his sister in drag. And that’s only about half of what unfolds.

Appropriately enough for such a loopy tale, it all takes place on an immense blue wave of a platform, a gorgeous remnant from a water park — or an MTV Video Music Awards show — that allows the actors to slip and slide and, at one point, surf onto the stage. Building on a Shakespearean metaphor, it literally thrusts the characters onto a sea of love. Unfortunately, this Twelfth Night doesn’t always meet the vertiginous promise of its set.

The production does well by some of Shakespeare’s most eloquently famous lines (”If music be the food of love, play on.”). And it’s heartening to see that three of the show’s TV stars have no trouble bending the material to their particular gifts — the smoldering Smits, the bright-eyed Braff, and the gigantic Johnston (whose hilariously loud lady-in-waiting is only a stone’s throw from her work in 3rd Rock). But not everyone in the large cast possesses the cadence and command required.

At the core of the play is Stiles’ Viola. The seductively petite young actress has shown an affinity for Shakespeare in several of her movies (Hamlet, O), but the maturity she displays in films doesn’t completely carry over onto the stage. She makes an appealingly valiant attempt. And she improves as the play proceeds. But too often, she seems to be merely reciting lines, her voice outpacing her heart.

It might have helped if director Brian Kulick took the material at a less deliberate pace and had a steadier comic hand. Even the show’s clowns — foppish Oliver Platt and gnomish Michael Stuhlbarg — are allowed to lapse into strained buffoonery. And while there’s no denying the built-in wonder that accompanies the finale — when the twins are magically reunited like two halves of a whole — in general, this Night fails to spin to its loftiest heights and become a euphoric celebration of the madness in men. It’s likable fun — but seldom the serious fun that Shakespeare clearly intended.

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