For its return to live performance, the Drilling Company’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot series did not rely on a familiar crowd-pleaser from a catalog of greatest hits. It instead chose a deep cut: “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” This play was not even a solo effort for Shakespeare, who shares the credit with John Fletcher, like a Jacobean version of James Patterson sharing authorship with lesser-known collaborators for his thrillers. This new version might also include a third culprit, the director Hamilton Clancy, since it is unlikely that the original contains references to Celine Dion and the ballad “I Will Always Love You.” (We are double-checking with the Folger Shakespeare Library.)
The popcorn aspect isn’t incidental, either: While this isn’t top-shelf drama, there certainly is potential for entertainment in the slapdash, bordering-on-incoherent adventures of two cousins who fall for the same woman, with somber notes inserted at seemingly random intervals, and a time-consuming comic subplot grafted on because why not? This is a tragicomedy so you need a bit of everything, plus plays greater than this one have thrived despite devil-may-care logic.
Unfortunately, Clancy’s staging does not exploit this potential, and on a recent evening in Bryant Park, the production relied mostly on a certain earnest enthusiasm. (The show moves to the parking lot of the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, on the Lower East Side, next week.)
In this iteration, the cousins are the sockless, chino-wearing Palamon (Bradford Frost) and the slightly more brooding Arcite (John Caliendo, in a role played by, fun fact, David Harbour in the 2003 Public Theater production). They actually feel more like mismatched brothers from Delta Tau Chi, hitting the brewskis until they both fall for Emilia (Liz Livingston). Mind you, all it took was seeing her through the window of the cell where they ended up after fighting the power, that is Theseus (Lukas Raphael).
This shared passion for a comely lady who happens to be Theseus’s sister-in-law turns the young men into rivals, then they are friends again, then there’s a fight, which does not end well for one of them. As for Emilia, it does not really matter which of the cousins she prefers because the dying one just gifts her to the survivor.
Meanwhile, the jailer’s daughter may not be deemed worthy of a character name but still lands a lot of juicy comic scenes after she becomes obsessed — also after just one look — with Palamon. This is an excuse for the actress Jane Bradley to gleefully chew the scenery, except we are on the park’s upper terrace behind the New York Public Library and there isn’t any. To indicate the moment when the jailer’s daughter totally loses the plot (like many of us in the audience), Bradley turns up with smudged lipstick, like a long-lost relative of the Joker. A production interested in subtlety might have excavated poignant resonance from her descent into madness, as when Malvolio garners our sympathy upon being humiliated in “Twelfth Night,” but this is not it.
Apparently, Clancy’s concept was some kind of “modern espionage story,” which is not evidenced in what we see. Then again, so many such modern movies are far-fetched and incomprehensible that maybe the idea is perfectly executed.
Two Noble Kinsmen
July 28-30 at the Clemente, Manhattan; shakespeareintheparkinglot.com. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.