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Conversations in Tusculum

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brian Dennehy and Aidan Quinn.
Photo by Michal Daniel.

How many people would place Julius Caesar at the top of their list of favorite Shakespeare plays? Its cloakroom intrigue makes for some riveting moments, but does it trump the lush, purposeful romanticism of Romeo and Juliet, the epic sweep of Hamlet, or the nimble unpredictability of A Midsummer Night's Dream? It's hard to imagine it making anyone's short list. Conversations in Tusculum, Richard Nelson's new spin on Caesar at The Public Theater's Anspacher Theater, Shakespeare's history-tragedy is looking better every day. Friends, New Yorkers, countrymen, lend me your ears! This is the most mind-meltingly boring play New York has suffered in seasons.

Nelson's self-directed insomnia cure finds the greatest minds of 45 B.C. locked in a series of informal debates about Caesar, the man they all abhor. While safely ensconced in the Roman suburb Tusculum (which in scenic designer Thomas Lynch's conception looks like a hippy-minimalist living room), away from the eyes and ears of their ever-nosy nemesis, they endlessly expound on their ruler-cum-God, the slavery that's resulted from the supposed freedoms he's imposed, and every other subject that comes to mind.

Brutus (Aidan Quinn) and his brother-in-law Cassius (David Strathairn) intone volumes about the injustice of Caesar's justice, and how he forever pits them against one another. Sympathizer Cicero (Brian Dennehy) can't stop fretting over impending public outrage due to his writings, his withering marriage (to a 17-year-old), and his flailing sexual prowess. Anti-establishment actor Syrus (Jeremy Strong, replacing Joe Grifasi at the performance I attended) won't stop babbling about needing a place to stay. The women, Brutus's wife Porcia (Gloria Reuben) and mother Servilia (Maria Tucci), pick up the slack whenever the men's self-medicating chatter ceases.

Despite words, words, words enough to send the Prince of Denmark into hysterics, little is said and less is accomplished. Every character pontificates on the immediacy of his or her concerns, but all are so lethargic about their positions and their prospects that there's no question their souls have already been stifled beyond repair. This could be interesting in the right circumstances, with these people longing for action they're too numbed to take. And some stories on the periphery are captivating enough to percolate briefly to the surface: Caesar's borderline insanity (one character grumbles about his naming a month after himself) and the message-sending suicide of Porcia's dissident father each have the potential to shine new light on the Caesar we thought we knew.

Nelson displays no particular energy or interest in exploring either the incapacitating effects of chronic ennui or the centuries-spanning implications of Caesar's calamitous reign. From the opening drumbeats of Brutus and Cassius's early secret collusion to the final images of Syrus's incendiary closing monologue, Nelson's target more resembles the sitting American President than the Roman dictator for life for whom the only remedy is murder. (President Bush's White House occupancy ends, per the Constitution, in less than a year.)

If such political commentary, however thinly veiled, is worthwhile theatrical fodder, it shouldn't be deadly. But this evening is so stultifying, you can't even appreciate it as a showcase for the superb performers tangled up in it. You can admire individual elements - the smoldering embers at Quinn's core, Reuben's stature, Tucci's quiet dignity - but they add up to nothing. When a potential firebrand like Dennehy is lethargic to the point of anesthesia, unable to transcend the paper-pushing limitations of the high-thinking man he's playing, something is clearly wrong.

That something is implicit in the play's title, which is as bull's-eye accurate as it is threateningly portentous. In Conversations in Tusculum, discussion is its own reward, something that very rarely holds true for audiences unless the play in question has been penned by someone like Michael Frayn or Tom Stoppard. Those two men have strong understandings of how to imbue intellectual dialogue with tension and humor enough to supplement whatever might be missing in the action proper.

Nelson lacks their skill of judging the difference between the act of talking and talk of acting. This results in a play that rattles off countless questions about weighty topics, but leaves you wondering only where you can find a production of Julius Caesar and where you can find a bed.

Conversations in Tusculum
Through March 30
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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