Esparza romances Hathaway on stage

This summer, Raul Esparza is starring in Shakespeare's <em><![CDATA[Twelfth Night]]></em> at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park.

NEW YORK — Raul Esparza is one of the hottest leading men on Broadway, slipping effortlessly between musicals and plays, and picking up tons of acclaim along the way.

The four-time Tony nominee tries to avoid reviews of his work because he's not "strong enough" to handle the criticism. But if Esparza caught the critical response to the recent revival of "Speed-the-Plow," which co-starred Elisabeth Moss and Jeremy Piven (before the mercury poisoning), he'd discover how he grabbed the lion's share of praise for his showy turn as a cutthroat movie producer.

Now, Esparza and Anne Hathaway are the romantic leads in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production of "Twelfth Night," the Bard's screwball tale of mistaken identity. Esparza, 38, portrays Orsino, the duke of Illyria, who is in love with Lady Olivia (played by Tony-winning actress Audra McDonald), who ignores his advances and falls for the clever page Cesario, who's actually Viola, dressed as a boy and secretly crushing on Orsino.

Hathaway, 26, who starred in "The Devil Wears Prada" and got a best actress Oscar nomination for "Rachel Getting Married," tackles the gender-bending role of Viola/Cesario in a cast packed with stage veterans. It's her first major theater production — and a very wet one, as June rains have drenched the city almost daily. Only one performancewas canceled, though, according to the Public.

"She is a goddess!" declares Esparza, talking excitedly about Hathaway in his dressing room. "First of all, Annie has managed to feel like a consummate stage professional in a span of just a few weeks, and she hasn't that much experience on stage. She's certainly never done Shakespeare before. She's also good people. She works really hard."

The play runs until July 12 at the outdoor Delacorte Theater. Previous in-the-park productions of "Twelfth Night" co-starred Jeff Goldbum and Michelle Pfeiffer (in 1989) and Julia Stiles and Jimmy Smits (2002).

At first, Esparza wasn't crazy about his lovesick character, who spends much of his stage time requesting music and moping around in an otherwise high-spirited romp.

"Everybody else was doing this comedy and ... every time I walked down, I was like, depressed and spouting really deep poetry," he says. "And it bothered me at first. I'm like, 'I'm in the wrong show. I'm so boring. This is so boring.' ... And I thought, 'Nobody wants to watch this.' "

So he decided to mine some laughs out of Orsino, who reminds Esparza of a "teenager sitting around listening to Coldplay with the lights off." Still, he can relate. "We've all been there, like, 'Oohhh, it's the only person in the world. I'm so depressed!' But we love it. We love how depressed we are."

Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, thinks Esparza has accomplished something original.

"He manages to both make him somebody who is heartbreakingly vulnerable and in love — and a genuine clown," Eustis says. "He gets laughs I've never seen anybody get in the part. And it's a product of Raul's just remarkable intelligence. He is so smart and so self-aware on stage without that self-consciousness ever being inhibiting. I just marvel at him."

Esparza has a strikingly handsome face: big blue eyes, thick head of dark hair, impish smile. In an interview, he's charming and self-effacing, revealing an interest in both highbrow and popular culture.

Here's Esparza on the Susan Boyle phenomenon: "She is a perfect competent singer — that's it. That's it. And clearly they shattered her life in this strange way that nobody had any control of, gave her celebrity but without experience or any support underneath it. And look what happened."

On his childhood love for Shakespeare: "I vividly remember acting out the plays with my 'Star Wars' action figures, and my grandmother thought I was deranged."

On the Internet: "I Googled myself and I paid the price, oh, boy. I had to make a pact with myself to stop. My manager used to tell me ... 'Don't click pain!' "

His previous Shakespearean experience was "Richard II" at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, when he was starting out as an actor. He channeled Che in a national tour of "Evita" and various regional productions, including the Stephen Sondheim musical "Sunday in the Park With George," before making a marquee name on Broadway. His Tony nominations were for two plays (''Speed-the-Plow" and Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming") and two musicals (Sondheim's "Company" and the Rosie O'Donnell flop "Taboo").

He recently appeared on the short-lived TV show "Pushing Daisies" and wants to do some "new work" after back-to-back revivals.

There's a "potential Sondheim thing" and "a musical that's been kicking around for a while that I might go to," he says.

Owing to the success of "Speed-the-Plow," there has been "an awful lot of interest coming from Hollywood, but to me, that's like playing a craps game," he adds. "I suppose someday the dice will come up. You just keep rolling 'em. And maybe that's what I'll do."