You, Nero

A few times every season, assertions mount that there seem to be no more original story ideas out there. With Hollywood beginning production on the sixth “Fast and Furious” movie, it’s tempting to believe them sometimes.
But hold on, now — doesn’t it do us some good to revisit common themes? Isn’t that recurrence, in fact, what makes some of the simplest stories our most absorbing classics?

Danny Scheie as Nero and Susannah Schulman as Poppaea (Photo: Scott Suchman)

If good artists borrow but great artists steal, we can expect many new plays to feature familiar conflicts and recognizable characters. Even so, it’s rather strange how identical the premise is for the two plays currently running at Arena Stage. In both Equivocation and You, Nero, the main character is a successful but even-keeled playwright, who has been summoned to court and tasked with writing a new stage play. Much to the writer’s chagrin, his new play must serve as political propaganda for the monarch in charge. Or else.

Playwrights Bill Cain and Amy Freed, respectively, weave a modern flair into the fabric of Equivocation and You, Nero, not to mention a cheeky self-awareness and a chronic reliance on meta-jokes about life in the theatre.

But where Cain has his protagonist — none other than William Shakespeare — think deeply and engagingly about whether it’s more important to secure one’s life or one’s legacy, Freed seems so enamored with the notion of a period pop-culture piece — a classical Rome jazzed up on sugar, big beats, and American Idol — that the result is like doing an archaeological dig in your kid’s backyard sandbox. What sifts up from the shallow sand is a bright, baffling array of plastic pleasures, tossed around and then easily set aside in the search for something deeper.

Freed’s play, which gets a serviceable if somewhat unmoored staging in the expansive in-the-round Fichandler space, has several winning moments, and a number of talented veteran comic actors. Unfortunately, they’re half-baked into a two-act fruitcake of canned one-liners, tired plot points, and smirky references to the 21st century. There’s nothing wrong with a goofy romp through a re-booted Rome. But pop-culture references aren’t jokes in and of themselves, and when thinly applied and undersold they end up sliding off the story when they should be giving it a jazzy kick to the pants.

In this version of history, Nero has commissioned a playwright (named Scribonius, naturally) to write a play about how fabulous he is. In a welcome turn from form, there’s no dark design, no cover-up, no sinister brainwashing afoot. Nero’s just a really fabulous fella. And since he’s played with such a flash of sequined sass by the incredibly funny, impeccably tuned Danny Sheie — who originated the role at South Coast Rep — we fall for him immediately. All of Rome does. His small stature, nimble step, and sharp timing keep him an Olympic sprint ahead of the rest of the show.

But because Nero’s nabbed all the really fun toys, no one else gets much to play with. Next to the pint-sized chatterbox emperor, Scribonius (played valiantly by Jeff McCarthy) just doesn’t get much to do. It’s a script thing. Scribonius is written as narrator, and serves as our lens during an extended tour of the inner palace, but his role as spectator never delivers him to a compelling crossroads.

One gets the sense that Nero wouldn’t really mind all that much if the biography doesn’t get written. He’s too busy sleeping in, trying on capes, and executing servants. And without any palpable threat to the fun and games, we have nothing to fear. Nero can fiddle around all he wants, but if Rome never burns for the worse, what are we witnessing besides how to succeed in business without really trying?

The performers all do their part to keep the proverbial litter held high, and the mis-steps are few. DC reliables like Nancy Robinette and Laurence O’Dwyer mesh nicely with the original cast members. But the simple truth is, Rome wasn’t built with a cast of thirteen. Especially in such a spare staging, the lack of a real swell of extras makes it awfully hard to paint the presence of a larger city. When a scrabble of six ensemble members run determinedly across the huge space, it looks less like a riot than a rush to the bus stop. Since when is the most glorious city in Western history such a ghost town? No wonder Nero’s free to preen.

Perhaps the heft of a massive, bustling city could be achieved through sound or projection design rather than casting. Regardless, one wishes more pressure upon our fair emperor. If Freed’s lesson is meant to be humanist – an anti-greed call to Occupy Rome – shouldn’t something bad happen? And if the show is meant as a candied celebration of everything fun… shouldn’t something bad happen anyway? My advice: give this Nero a stand-up comedy club to conquer (he can keep his laurels) and give a young play the time it needs to walk the avenues of an old, old city.

Arena Stage’s production of You, Nero runs thru Jan 1, 2012 at Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC.

You, Nero

by Amy Freed
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Produced by Arena Stage|
Reviewed by Hunter Styles

Somewhat recommended

Running time: Approx 2 hrs with 1 intermission
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