There’s reason to rejoice these days both on Broadway and Off, with two wonderful musical productions and one fascinating new play to revel in.
Richard Nelson’s new play, “Conversations In Tusculum” is based, in part, on the book written by the politician and author Cicero back in 45 B.C. No, that was not the Summer of Love, and no, I was NOT there, but it WAS a time of major upheaval in ancient Rome when Julius Caesar was growing increasingly power-mad and disturbingly irrational. Already you can get a whiff of why Nelson would have a reason to write a play on the subject at this point in time, even though, with less than a year left to go in the current administration, it might seem as though it’s a bit too late to address the matter. Well, folks, it’s never too late to point out how absolute power and ego gone goofy can affect and destroy a free society. To Nelson’s credit, however, he doesn’t pile on the similarities between ancient Rome and modern America with a heavy hand; in fact, he restrains himself admirably until deep into the second act.The only aspect of the production that does suggest contemporary times are the costumes.
The play is deceptively simple, playing as a series of, yes, ordinary conversations with Cicero, Brutus, Cassius and Portia over the summer they are in seclusion in their villas in the hills around Tusculum, about 15 miles away from Rome. Brutus and Cassius trade anecdotes about their experiences, both good and awful, with the power crazy Caesar. Cicero then shows up to add philosophy to the already viscous stew of politics, and before you know it, there are dangerous signs of anarchy and chaos bubbling to the surface. The play, in fact, is so well written, it might benefit from a viewing of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” soon after experiencing it. And there are three towering performances to command your attention as well. As Cicero, Brian Dennehy is an old lion, damaged by his daughter’s death, humiliated by his young wife’s demand for a divorce and a return of the dowry, but whose mind is still quick and deadly as a freshly laid trap. At times, he’s reminiscent of the elderly Lawrence Olivier. David Straithairn is suitably rumpled and weary as the downtrodden Cassius, yet his performance is full of anger, wit and ferocity. But it is Aidan Quinn, too long away from the New York stage, who provides the master class in first class performance here. His Brutus prowls the stage, at times seeming to toss his lines away and then, just as suddenly, reeling them right back in. Physically, he makes Brutus tired,paranoid,feverish…his face always bursting with beads of sweat, his legs looking as though they might at any moment, give way and his body crumple to the floor. It is a must see performance by an actor we’ve not seen in anything this good in a long time. By the time the play comes to its conclusion, there is more than conclusive evidence that these three characters, as played by these three gentlemen, will become capable of..well, of anything necessary to restore Rome to its former glory. Shakespeare’s play, and, of course, history, bear that out.
If it’s something a little lighter you crave, get over to Studio 54, where a delicious revival of Sondheim’s “Sunday In The Park With George” has just been extended AGAIN until mid-June. A London import, this production sends chills down your back with its state of the art special effects and mesmerizing lighting. It will probably make a major star out of its leading lady, Jenna Russell, who, at times, reminds you of a young Meryl Streep. And unlike recent revivals under the Roundabout banner, especially those at Studio 54, this physical production doesn’t look like a bargain basement church social sort of affair-it actually looks as if someone finally decided to spend a little dough and give the audience its money’s worth. Way to go, Roundabout! And unlike their other current production of “The 39 Steps” on 42nd Street, you’ll probably stay awake, too.
Finally, the delightfully raucous off-Broadway musical “Passing Strange”, which I praised to the skies last Spring when it played The Public Theatre, has made the leap to Broadway with all of its frenetic, electrifying energy intact. The cast is actually better a year later, and I’m now firmly convinced the show’s creator, Stew, has a shot at a Tony Award this June not only for Best Book and Score of a musical, but for Best Actor as well! We should bend at the waist and thank Public Theatre artistic director Oskar Eustis not only for this joyous musical on Broadway, but for the above-mentioned “Conversations In Tusculum” as well, because that play is running downtown in the same space occupied by “Passing Strange” almost a year ago!