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Restoration

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Restoration
Claudia Shear with Jonathan Cake.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

How often is a single symbol within a play both its best and its worst possible representative? Claudia Shear’s new play, Restoration, at New York Theatre Workshop, relies on one iconic work for both its plot and its theme: Michelangelo’s David. Because that sculpture is at once a shining example of artistry and a visionary artistic rendering of the human form at its most compelling, it could not better speak for a play consumed with mankind’s relationship to both realistic and impossible notions of beauty. But marble? Cold and unyielding? Such words have no place anywhere near Shear’s supple and deeply affecting play which, even at this early juncture, spells doom for other works that would compete to be the 2010-11 season’s best.

Under Christopher Ashley’s precisely tuned direction, Shear heads a magnificent company through 95 thrilling minutes that document a year in the, well, restoration of — what? The David, certainly, for that is why Italian-American art preservationist Giulia (Shear) has been swept from her Brooklyn garage and art history–teaching gig to the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze in Florence. Yet there are also some half-dozen souls on display that are in need of just as much tender-loving care, and their gradual beautifying is even more enveloping than the techniques applied to that 500-year-old chunk of rock (the short version: no brushes and no water).

Chief among these is that of Giulia, who’s single, middle-aged, and in every outward way unremarkable. But she can instantly recognize beauty whenever she sees it, which she does on this job. The David’s personal guard, Max (Jonathan Cake), is a stereotypical Italian matinee-idol type, for Giulia (and everyone else) as dreamlike an embodiment of the 21st century male form as David was of it in the 1500s. The museum’s press agent, Daphne (Tina Benko), is his female equivalent: a statuesque blonde, every man’s dream in all the ways that Giulia knows she’s not. Professor Williams (Alan Mandell) may not be much of a physical specimen, but for Giulia his ideas and belief in her (he helps her get the job, against strong opposition) are as beautiful as they come.

But just as the David has seen its share of strife over five tumultuous centuries, the “ideal” Max and Daphne are not without flaws, and as Giulia undergoes her own journey, she comes to see that even her much-longed-for attractiveness comes with a price. She may prefer to lose herself in the never-changing David, but she sacrifices real life to do it. A life that, for all its fits and starts, seems more rewarding for Professor Williams, Max, Daphne, and an odd old woman who just can’t stop visiting the statue (Natalija Nogulich) than it is for Giulia.

Restoration is right in line with Shear’s previous works about finding oneself in unlikely places, Blown Sideways Through Life (which Ashley also directed, in 1993) and Dirty Blonde (which started at NYTW in 2000 and transferred to Broadway). But though those plays, particularly the latter, reveal Shear as an unusually insightful comedienne-dramatist, this play feels like her most significant achievement yet. It’s that rare blending of determination, voice, and production that makes what could be merely an afternoon’s diversion into a trenchant and transcendent deconstruction of the ways we view ourselves in a world in which no one embodies all the qualities of the art we most admire.

Restoration
Claudia Shear with Tina Benko, Natalija Nogulich, and Alan Mandell.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

A couple of kisses, utterly disconnected from traditional romance, become powerful vehicles for emotional expression by those who can’t use words to describe their truest feelings. A series of press conferences suffice as both comic interludes — the brash Giulia is not great behind a mic — and unifying devices for bringing together the many disparate viewpoints about Giulia’s work and the business of art. And Giulia’s ongoing consummation of her relationship with the David, so cleverly delineated as she slowly progresses from the bottom to the top of Scott Pask’s revolving caged-statue set piece, allows myriad opportunities for both Shear the actress and Shear the playwright to break your heart and reflect on the almost-but-not-quite eternal nature of Giulia’s brush with history.

“All those years,” Giulia laments. “Even you, David, even you will die,” she sputters, her words drenched with a finality she’s spent her entire career trying to ignore. It’s a moving, meaningful moment, part of a particularly gorgeous speech about what, if anything, her work and life have meant. But there are many others, alternating between serene (“I envy beauty like it is a prize that has been snatched from me... I want to be objectified. Enough to stand in your skin, simply how it has been genetically programmed to stretch across the length of bone and sinew... it’s enough.”) and the comic (“David is my boyfriend, the most beautiful man in the world is my Senior Prom’s revenge, my no New Year’s date payback. Now I’m the coolest — look who I brought to the party”), with none ever feeling false or overdrawn.

Shear is wonderful as Giulia: so subtle in how she parcels out her resentment, yet so majestic in embracing and defending her work against all detractors, including those of her own invention. Giulia’s transformation, from lifeless stone into flesh-and-blood human being, rivals that of her hero and heroine in Dirty Blonde who found similarly rejuvenating qualities in sex siren Mae West. Shear’s Giulia is always recognizably, painfully real, in every way a remarkable, tour-de-force creation.

The other performers are hardly less effective, with Cake deceptively rich as the security guard with a secret past, who’s as haunted by his appraisal of himself as is Giulia, and has his own complex and codependent relationship with the David. Mandell is charming as the elderly but sparkling professor, Nogulich a delight as the older woman and quite thoughtful in additional roles as the Accademia’s director and a knowing cleaning maid, and Benko surprisingly engaging as a haughty bureaucrat with debilitating image problems of her own.

They all learn, over the year they spend with Giulia and the David, that nothing is ever as it appears and beauty truly is, as they say, only skin-deep. That may not be a new lesson, but Shear relates it with such energizing originality that you’ll appreciate it in a way you never have before, whether concerning sculptures or people. Not that they’re different, the play argues, just different kinds of works in progress, and each art in a unique way, embodying Antoine de Saint-Exuper’s observation that “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” As Shear’s characters strip themselves bare in pursuing their own ideals of perfection, you may wonder whether, with her lean yet epic Restoration, Shear has not already come astonishingly near it herself.


Restoration
Through June 13
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral