June 5, 2010

"Restoration" Puts Claudia Shear Back on Top

It’s been nearly 10 years since Claudia Shear last had a new play in New York. But I hadn’t realized how much I missed her singular voice until seeing her latest, Restoration, which is running through June 13 at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Shear likes to write about strong, charismatic women but she’s no raging polemicist.  Her plays are simultaneously level-headed, warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny. So it was a no-brainer when my theatergoing buddy Bill asked me if I wanted to  see Restoration with him. 

Shear made a name for herself back in 1994 with the first play she ever wrote, Blown Sideways Through Life, a lightly fictionalized account of the 64 different day jobs she held while waiting for her big break as an actress. Six years later came Dirty Blonde, a multi-layered piece about Mae West. Giulia, the fiercely independent art restorer who is the main character in the new play, fits perfectly into that sisterhood.

At the beginning of Restoration, Giulia is an outcast in the art world. Her maverick and outspoken views on how to clean and repair rare works of arts have gotten her exiled to a job teaching art appreciation courses at Brooklyn College. She’s rescued when her former art professor and mentor helps her win the plum job of restoring Michelangelo’s David for the statue’s 500th anniversary.

With a title like Restoration, the setting in Florence and the presence of a hunky museum guard, the play falls into the category of one of those familiar middle-aged-woman-get-second-chance-at-life stories.  But as my mother used to say, it’s not what you do but how you do it that counts. And Shear does it with aplomb. As in the past, she plays the main role herself and the line between the two blurs.  Neither suffers fools, as I learned first-hand when I interviewed Shear for the website Women’s Voices for Change. 

As you might expect, I tried to direct the conversation towards comparisons with Giulia’s experience and those of other middle-aged women.  But Shear was having none of it. “You know, I’m not big on the grand statements of, like, women in the workplace,” she said at one point during our phone interview.  “I find people are people... I know this is a site about women but that’s not what the play is about.  The play is about passion, art, beauty.”  (Click here to read what else she said.) 

Restoration isn’t a one-woman, or one-person, operation.  Shear’s frequent collaborator director Christopher Ashley has created a production that is leisurely paced but beautifully showcases the play. Kudos also go to Scott Pask who has recreated the gallery at the Accademia where the real statue sits and devised a clever conceit to keep it covered by scaffolding during most of the play so that only bits of the statue are revealed. (Click here to see a video about the making of the set when the show originally appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse last June.)

But the greatest support comes from Shear’s fellow actors, particularly Jonathan Cake, who is slyly charming as the guard and Tina Benko who gives a lovely performance as the museum’s aristocratic head of publicity who often clashes with Giulia. Both admirably avoid falling into stereotype.

Changes occur over the course of the 90-minutes play, although not quite the ones you expect. I left the theater with a rejuvenated belief in the power of part and prowess of Shear.

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