nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 26, 2005
Tabloid Caligula, now appearing as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival, is a study in hero worship gone badly astray. Robert is a middle-aged petty criminal-turned-entrepreneur-wannabe. We meet him as he enters the shoddy basement storeroom that functions as headquarters for his exotic rugs business, followed immediately by Joe, a young man perhaps in his early 20s who is Robert's protege and worshipful man Friday. Joe aspires to be the kind of man that Robert, who is nattily attired in a dark suit and nothing if not articulately self-possessed, appears to be. For a very long time, Robert—Pygmalion to Joe's still very unformed Galatea—teaches his charge about transference of power, image, and the importance of history. Robert fancies himself a modern-day Alexander the Great, and indeed the street and tube maps of London that are pasted all across the back wall of the office are criss-crossed with red yarn tracking Robert's "campaigns" as he builds his "empire." Joe hangs on every word.
Then a woman named Mary comes in. Mary has asked Robert to do a job for her; we're not sure at first what it is, but it's clear that it's something illegal—something that Robert used to do but now does only reluctantly (he claims) and for good cause. Mary knows Robert from a long time ago but he hasn't remembered her so far. What Mary wanted done (which, not surprisingly, Joe has bungled), and what she knows about Robert's past—why she's really here—get revealed in the final half of Tabloid Caligula, as the balance of power shifts and Robert's delusions about himself and his past crash to the ground.
It makes for a suspenseful 80 minutes of theatre, but it's not finally very compelling. I think a piece of the problem is Peter Tate's performance as Robert, which starts out so low-key as to be almost uninteresting, and ends up with some very over-the-top melodramatics as the would-be megalomaniac implodes. Tate's work contrasts unhappily with Chris Harper's very endearing turn as the dim but gullible Joe and Suzan Sylvester's assured take on shrewd, scheming Mary; both are endlessly more fascinating to us than Robert, but the play isn't really about either one of them.
Which leads to the other source of trouble in Tabloid Caligula, namely, Darren Murphy's script. Robert is clearly the protagonist, but I never cared about him, not for one minute, and this made it hard to sit through the play. Murphy gives everything about Robert away in about three minutes at the top of the evening: as soon as we start observing him strutting before his willing but obviously deficient pupil it's clear what an utter loser he is. Robert starts small and stays small in this play; though events take him on an arc that could be tragic, we don't feel the tragedy because he's such a trivial and insignificant character. (And, sure—that smallness all by itself is very much a part of Robert's tragedy: but it's not revealed to us dramatically, it's thrown at us the minute the play begins.)
There are other problems with Murphy's work here, most having to do with plausibility. Why does Robert leave Joe alone with Mary? Why is Mary's ultimate approach to Robert so indirect? And why doesn't Robert recognize Mary? (We learn that she played a very significant role in his life; it's hard to imagine that he would forget her.) Overall, Tabloid Caligula doesn't bear much scrutiny. And Tate's un-engrossing characterization of Robert makes it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for the proceedings as they proceed.