Conversations in Tusculum
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 6, 2008
Richard Nelson's Conversations in Tusculum will probably not inspire many in Manhattan. At least, not as many as it seems like it should.
The premise of the play is promising to say the least: set in Tusculum (a city 15 miles southeast of Rome) during the months of May through September 45 B.C., Conversations imagines the conspiratorial, well, conversations between Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero (among others) that will lead up to the assassination of Julius Caesar the following (Ides of) March. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's Roman plays will recognize many of these characters (including the aforementioned and Brutus's wife, Porcia) who appear onstage, and the names of numerous characters (including Caesar, Cleopatra, Marcus Antonius, among others) who do not. I will not go into detail here about the plot, because a larger accurate historical understanding is perhaps the most you will gain from seeing—or reading—this play that never learned to play.
If I had to choose (and I would hate to have to) between seriousness of intent and entertainment value, I would probably choose the former. If you are like me in this regard, you may be able to sit through Conversations and appreciate the ambition and intelligence on display; if you are looking for anything remotely approaching fun, look further. The mood here is Chekhovian (the pace, the talk, the angst), but the characters haven't the linguistic or behavioral idiosyncrasies to make them dramatically compelling, and there isn't a whit of subtext. The concept here puts one in mind of Stoppard (specifically, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), but there are no philosophical epiphanies, no narrative innovations. The intention is pure Arthur Miller—taking a distant historical moment to warn us about the one we are currently experiencing (à la The Crucible). But instead of (to borrow a famous description of Death of a Salesman) a time bomb under capitalism, Conversations is more of a clock ticking in the other room.
The best thing Richard Nelson has done in the capacity of director is to bring together a starry and intriguing cast: Brian Dennehy as Cicero (mourning his recently deceased daughter, and reading his own writing aloud, sometimes to his dead daughter); Aidan Quinn and David Strathairn as Brutus and Cassius, respectively (suspicious of everyone and sweating profusely); Gloria Reuben as Porcia (righter than everyone and crying profusely); Maria Tucci as the knowing and benignly villainous Servilla (Brutus' mother; Caesar's former mistress), and Joe Grifasi as Syrus (an actor who summers—and presumably winters—as the guest of any friend who will have him). Unfortunately, they have all been given dramatic duties equivalent to that of the messenger in some unpopular Greek tragedy. Their earnest and protracted speeches recall colorful events by people naughty, funny, sexy, horrific—in short, qualities that this playwright seems to want to keep his characters pure of.
Indeed, the impending doom of the tyrannical Caesar whose colorfully cutthroat career transitioned Rome from a republic to an autocracy is worth depicting right now when it seems the America (as powerful as Rome in its day) is ready to receive its comeuppance due to a legacy of greedy and mendacious leaders. I honestly don't know what will galvanize us to significant political action against an administration that daily makes the world our nation's enemy. But Nelson's play remains a history lesson—perhaps with a sense of humor, a bit of flirtation with its subject, Conversations in Tusculum might become the cutting, subversive play it wants to be.