James Noone's sumptuous in-the-round set conjures up the era of the Roman emperor Nero with its mosaics, draperies, and classical arches and pediments. The play, in contrast, traffics in obvious anachronism and contemporary language, which serve to make the modern parallels annoyingly obvious rather than thought-provoking. Director Nicholas Martin plays up the absurdities with his antic staging, aiming for a heightened form of realism through exaggeration, but the material just isn't strong enough.
The historical Nero is known to this day for his amorality and cruelty, but he was also a patron of the artsand even a performer himself, according to some accounts. Freed has created a playwright, Scribonius (Jeff McCarthy), who has fallen on hard times: when crowds can watch gladiators hack each other to death or battle wild animals (including an amusing alligator), why should they settle for works by artists who don't actually kill anyone?
Nero (Danny Scheie) offers Scribonius money, power and fame in exchange for writing a biographical play that will make the emperor's subjects love him. "The people don't know me," whines the infantile tyrant, so Scribonius sets out to write a moral lesson for Nero: people prefer a leader who rules justly and treats people with kindness to one who takes whatever he wants and throws away whatever is left over.
Freed wrote the role of Nero for Scheie, but that doesn't make him any easier to take. He milks the character's petulance, his inability to care about anyone or anything except himself, his irritating voiceonly his excesses of fashion (designed by Gabriel Berry) hit the satiric target.
Many of the other actors fare better because they don't have to push as hard. As the designated voice of reason, McCarthy keeps a rein on his emotions; Nancy Robinette brings a loopy nobility to Agrippina, Nero's manipulative mother; Laurence O'Dwyer impresses in roles including an underemployed tragedian and Nero's advisor Burrus; and Susannah Schulman and Kasey Mahaffy amuse as two of Nero's playthings.