Middle-aged romantic misanthropists will find no greater role models than Shakespeare’s sharpest-tongued skeptics, Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice and Benedick. And you'll be hard-pressed to find two sharper tongues than Sons of Anarchy's Maggie Siff and onetime Desperate Housewives hunk Jonathan Cake, the practically combustible stars of Theatre for a New Audience's Much Ado, now playing at Off Broadway's Duke on 42nd Street through April 6. They spar, they snarl (yes, literally!), they woo, they weep, and then they leave the stage for vast stretches of time. Alack, poor audience.
Unfortunately, Shakespeare gave just as much (if not more) stage time to the love story between Beatrice's cousin Hero (Michelle Beck) and Benedick's fellow soldier Claudio (Matthew Amendt). She's lovely but practically mute; he's handsome but weak-willed. Naturally, her dad (Robert Langdon Lloyd) and Don Pedro the Prince (Graham Winton) couldn't be happier. And Don John (Saxon Palmer), the Prince's bastard brother, couldn't be more annoyed, which gets him thinking about doing something terribly evil.
Don John, however, might just be the most boring villain in the Bard's canon. He's King Lear's bastard Edmund sans sex appeal, Othello's Iago without the power, Cymbeline's Iachimo with less influence, Richard III minus the limp and murderous tendencies. ''I cannot hide what I am.... I am a plain-dealing villain,'' states Don John. Director Arin Arbus gets points for giving Palmer a Richard III-like hobble during that declaration which is nothing if not a variation on Richard's ''Since I cannot prove a lover...I am determined to prove a villain'' line. But otherwise, Palmer's Don John is little more than a guffawing, mustache-twirling, straight-out-of-a-B-movie baddie. We don't believe for a second that his scheme to break up the boring but perfectly matched Hero and Claudio will succeed. So on we trudge through false accusations and wedding-day humiliations not to mention bumbling, barely audible, malaprop-spouting ''comic'' interludes all the while wondering, when do we get to see Beatrice and Benedick go at each other's throats again?
Siff and Cake do, thankfully, return to the spotlight in the end. Of course, Shakespeare warned us that the course of true love never did run smooth. But I don't think it ever needs to be quite this bumpy. B-
(Tickets: Dukeon42.org or 646-223-3010)