Abraham unlocks nuances of Shylock in ‘Merchant’

F. Murray Abraham’s performance as Shylock, praised by New York critics as the greatest in memory, owes much to the fact that the actor is almost invariably taken as Jewish.

That pardonable error, he says, is central to his portrayal of the much-vilified Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” which opens April 14 on The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

The initial “F” in Abraham’s name stands for Fahrid: His father emigrated from Syria to the United States in the 1920s, and his grandfather was a chanter, equivalent to cantor, in the Syrian (Syriac) Orthodox Church, a denomination that traces its origin to the very beginning of Christianity.

However, everyone calls him “Murray,” he peppers his conversation with words like mishpachah, landsman and mazel tov, and, “Even people who know I’m not Jewish insist that I am,” he said.

In a phone call from Boston, one stop on his four-city tour of “The Merchant of Venice,” Abraham related a recurring little fantasy.

“I’m flying in a plane that’s taken over by Arab hijackers,” he said. “They collect all the passports, see the name Murray Abraham and get ready to shoot me as a Jew. I won’t tell them otherwise, but I think, ‘The joke is on you — you’re killing one of your own kind.’ ”

The present tour of “Merchant” started in New York, where critics like The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood went unusually wild over the production, including the direction by Darko Tresnjak and, particularly, Abraham’s rendition of Shylock.

The character of the Jewish moneylender, originally portrayed as an unmitigated villain, has been gradually humanized, but arguably no previous interpretation has gone as far as Abraham’s. In an era of virulent anti-Semitism in Christian Europe, “Shakespeare was the first playwright to draw the Jew as a human being, rather than just as the devil,” Abraham said.

“I think Shylock is a great, strong man, who has been driven [to his revenge]. If I’m successful in conveying this, audience members will feel that they would have chosen the same course as Shylock.

“As a matter of fact, some people have written me, after seeing the play, that ‘Shylock should have taken the pound of flesh. Antonio deserved it.’ ”

Abraham noted that his calling as an actor demands that he bring a sense of humanity to even the most reprehensible character, for otherwise “he becomes just a cartoon.”

In this sense, his greatest professional challenge was to portray Roy Cohn, Sen. Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man, in the Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

“I hated Cohn so much, I didn’t know whether I could play him,” Abraham recalled. “Then, during an overseas flight, I was reading the script and next to me sat a man who recognized me. He told me he was a lawyer and had gone up against Cohn in an earlier case.

“I asked the man what Cohn was like, and he answered: ‘Roy Cohn was the best lawyer I have ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.’ That statement opened the door into Cohn’s character,” Abraham said. “I had found one way to respect the man.”

Director Tresnjak stages “Merchant” in modern dress, with Wall Street replacing the Rialto of 16th century Venice. This device, and the actors’ approach, connects the play to today’s headlines in a very direct, if painful, way.

Now, as five centuries ago, “We have a warped system of justice in which the rich bend the law for their own benefit,” Abraham observed. “We nail people, as the Venetians did with Shylock, by calling them aliens.

“What is it about human nature that we need to spit on others?” he asked. “Look what the Jews and Arabs are doing to each other. They’re cousins, for God’s sake. Or do we fight because we’re family?”

Abraham was born in Pittsburgh but grew up in El Paso, Texas, where his Jewish friends taught him to pronounce mishpachah the Southern way. At 71, he can look back on a career record of some 90 stage plays and 80 movies. His prizes include a best actor Oscar for his role as Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s nemesis, in the 1984 film “Amadeus.”

Yet, for all his experience, and after playing Shylock more than 100 times, there are still times when Abraham will suddenly forget a line.

“It happened to me yesterday [in Boston],” he acknowledged. “If that had occurred when I started out as an actor, I would have wet my pants, but now I don’t scare anymore.

“Since I’m such a great actor,” Abraham added with a laugh, “I just gave Shylock a brief, thoughtful pause, and the play went on.”

His upcoming run in Los Angeles marks a return to the city of his stage debut, in the 1966 production of Ray Bradbury’s “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” at the venerable Coronet Theatre.

“The Merchant of Venice” will run April 14-24 at the 499-seat Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Parking is free. For information and tickets, phone (310) 434-3200 or visit www.thebroadstage.com.