March 19, 2008

Tedious "Conversations in Tusculum"

Expectations can sometimes play as big a role in how you feel about a show as what you actually see. I had big expectations for Conversations in Tusculum, the new play that opened at The Public Theater last week. It’s written by Richard Nelson, one of this country’s smartest and most versatile playwrights—his works include adaptations like James Joyce’s The Dead, books for musicals like Chess, and original plays like Franny’s Way and Two Shakespearean Actors. The show’s premise—a kind of prequel to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that focuses on the plotters who would assassinate him—sounded as though it could be the sort of fun that Tom Stoppard once had with Hamlet’s school pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And its cast—Brian Dennehy, Aidan Quinn, Joe Grifasi, Gloria Reuben, David Strathairn, and Maria Tucci—is a Mount Olympus of stage acting talent.

But my oh-no antenna began to buzz the minute the show started and Quinn and Strathairn, playing Brutus and Cassius, came on stage wearing outfits that looked less like those of Roman noblemen than hand-me-downs from the Russian gentry in The Coast of Utopia. (I don’t know what it is that costume designers suddenly seem to have against period dress—the Medieval thanes in the production of Macbeth that recently played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is now transferring to Broadway wear Stalin-era military uniforms; and the lord and ladies in the Mark Morris production of King Arthur that closed at New York City Opera over the weekend wore 21st century yoga outfits.) Still, I’m enough of a theatergoing veteran to know that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and follow the director’s vision.

In this case, though, the director was Nelson himself. And as both writer and director, he seem to have taken the show’s title seriously. Conversations in Tusculum is literally a series of conversations. All of the action—encounters with Caesar, battles, suicides, love affairs—take place off stage. And then the characters just sit around and talk about what happened. The play is clearly intended as an analogue to the current political situation (if you miss that, the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis helpfully points it out in his program notes) but I felt as though I were stuck at a party where all everyone did was sit around whining about their boss.

Jane Smiley did something similarly last year in her novel “Ten Days in the Hills,” an updating of Boccaccio's “Decameron” in which a group of family and friends literally head for the hills to avoid a catastrophe—a plague in Boccaccio; the start of the Iraq war in Smiley—that threatens their way of life. But Smiley spiced up her conversations with liberal dollops of sex talk and showbiz gossip from the Hollywood insiders she has standing in for Boccaccio’s Roman aristocracy, and with a sense of humor—all without compromising her trenchant observations about art, politics and relationships. Nelson’s characters include an actor, amiably played by Grifasi, but there’s no levity to leaven the endless colloquies. Watching the play, my mind occasionally drifted off to the book and how much better a time I’d had with it. And sometimes, it just drifted.

I did the whining in the cab ride home with my theatergoing buddy Bill. He agreed that it wasn’t the most exciting show he’d seen. But he said he liked it better than I had. Unlike me, he had read the reviews that described the show as talky and had gone in with different expectations.

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