nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
May 16, 2010
For a play about art, Claudia Shear's Restoration feels like a very accomplished paint-by-numbers—enjoyable, impeccably staged and performed, pleasing to look at, but sadly lacking in originality, passion, and feeling. I was entertained while watching it, but found both its plot and its emotional arc predictable and unexciting.
The story is simple: Giulia (also played by Shear), an art restorer who's burned a few too many bridges with her tactless honesty, is given a chance at the project of a lifetime—spending a year restoring Michelangelo's David in Florence, Italy, for the statue's 500th anniversary. A hard-nosed single woman with few emotional ties other than to the ailing mentor who helped her get the job, she jumps at the chance to work on David, even if she is required to be "a little less true to myself" in order to land the gig. And over her time in Florence, she gets to know various people at the museum—its handsome, womanizing, poetry-reading security director, Max; its ancient cleaning lady, Beatrice; and its elegant spokesperson, Daphne, whose beauty Giulia can't help but envy—and she finds her lifelong prickly shell softening—just a little—so that her heart might be opened to genuine human connection.
The problem is, none of Giulia's emotional revelations feels revelatory. It may be a genuine surprise to her that she's attracted to the dashing Max, or that she can actually forge a friendship with the beautiful and polished Daphne when Daphne has a crisis of her own—but this journey is all too familiar from a thousand other cultural products. Even Giulia's passion for David feels shallow. The piece is full of witty one-liners, but that's as sharp as the writing gets. And the characters feel constructed of selected traits—this one reads poetry and limps; this one has a sick mother—rather than organic.
Which is a shame, because the production is terrific—smartly staged by Christopher Ashley, elegantly designed, and well-acted throughout. Jonathan Cake is a treat as Max—warm, charming, somehow lecherous and sweet at the same time. Shear, as ever, has impeccable comic timing. Alan Mandell, as her former advisor, manages to imbue individual words ("Brooklyn," in particular) with a marvelous quotient of disdain. Tina Benko, as the glamorous Daphne, brings richness to what could be a paper-thin character (and looks stunning in David C. Woolard's costumes). And Natalija Nogulich has some of the best comic touches in a series of roles, notably Beatrice, the elderly cleaning woman at the Accademia.
The surfaces are delightful, but there's not much underneath.