by Ben Brantley on March 12, 2008
These guys look awful: haggard, unsmiling, glassy-eyed. As convincingly embodied by an illustrious crew that includes Brian Dennehy, Aidan Quinn and David Strathairn, the noble Romans of Richard Nelson’s “Conversations in Tusculum,” which opened Tuesday night at the Public Theater, have a ragged aspect that insomniacs will recognize immediately. It comes from sleeping too little and thinking too much.
What Cicero, Brutus and Cassius haven’t stopped doing is talking, exhaustingly and in circles, which is both their strength and their weakness. The same might be said of this quiet, angry play about political paralysis in a republic headed for hell.
That place is Rome in 45 B.C., and the megalomaniacal, war-mongering man who rules it is Julius Caesar. But Mr. Nelson is clearly inviting you to substitute another name, time and place should you choose.
The versatile author of “Goodnight Children Everywhere” and “Madame Melville,” works about the confusions of sexual guilt, Mr. Nelson has now created a portrait of the guilt of being merely intellectual when the world demands something more. The men in “Conversations” write copiously: letters, speeches, philosophical tomes and even plays. But for practical purposes, their words have all the force of swords that never leave their sheaths.
Set in country villas outside of Rome in the months before Caesar’s assassination, “Conversations in Tusculum” imagines the frustrations of fiery senators and warriors reduced to brooding in self-imposed isolation about the endangered civil freedoms of their republic.
“I’m always thinking about it,” Cassius (Mr. Strathairn) says of his last meetings with Caesar. “Trying to figure it out. What it means. Or meant. What it says about me.”
Mr. Strathairn delivers these lines with a weary self-reproach that suffuses all the performances. As directed by Mr. Nelson, this production is most persuasive in summoning a visceral sense of the pain in its characters’ passivity.
The script and the cast give precisely individualized existence to the forms this suffering takes in different characters, who also include Porcia (the commandingly serene Gloria Reuben), Brutus’s wife; Servilia (Maria Tucci), his worldly and wily mother; and Syrus, the actor and professional house guest (the excellent young Jeremy Strong, late of David Ives’s “New Jerusalem,” filling in for Joe Grifasi in the performance I attended).
“Conversations in Tusculum” establishes these characters and their histories with compelling detail in its first act. Given the automatic weightiness of names like Brutus and Cicero, there’s surprisingly little of the self-conscious stiffness endemic in sword-and-sandals dramas. (Thomas Lynch’s set has an appropriately cloister-ish austerity, while Susan Hilferty’s costumes look rather like what might be worn at a villa in Chekhov’s Russia.)
The play is also remarkably vivid in conjuring up the character of Caesar, as he exists through the prisms of the obsessed minds of those who feel they have become his humiliated slaves. In the opening scene Mr. Quinn and Mr. Strathairn recall their most recent encounters with Caesar, as if channeling vicious dybbuks they cannot expel from their systems.
But ultimately the play lacks dramatic momentum. Like its characters, it repeats itself at length. After a point, the game of finding parallels between then and now feels too easy. (The mention of Caesar’s giving up drinking draws knowing laughs; so do descriptions of the real-estate-consuming rich.)
More crucially, the vacillations of Brutus, the play’s true protagonist, feel more horizontal than vertical; they never build. He is, as described by another character, “younger than we sometimes think.”
And his aura of adolescent capriciousness, underscored by Mr. Quinn’s Brando-esque explosiveness, makes his ultimate decision to take arms against Caesar seem less a hard-won conviction than just another swing of an emotional pendulum. (He inevitably suffers in comparison with the Brutus of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”)
It’s fun throughout, though, to watch this mighty cast give different voice, in different styles, to characters who are all feeling much the same. Mr. Dennehy’s Cicero, the elder statesman and celebrated orator whose beloved daughter has recently died, keeps massaging his expansive brow with his large hands, as if trying to knead the sorrow out of his system. (This will be familiar to anyone who saw Mr. Dennehy’s Tony-winning performance in “Death of a Salesman,” but it works beautifully here too.)
Mr. Strathairn’s Cassius, whose wife has been appropriated as a plaything by Caesar, seems to grow more emaciated before your eyes, as if his swallowed anger had become a fast-acting cancer. By contrast, the estimable Ms. Tucci’s calculating Servilia has the wry, accepting manner of a political player who has seen it all.
“Things will get better,” she says. “They go in cycles. We just have to not panic.”
This spirit of resignation is held in contempt by most of the other characters, even as they admit their own inadequacy in burying their heads in their writing and philosophical debates. Theater, as incarnated by Syrus, is redeemed in the final scene, when it becomes a call to action. “Conversations in Tusculum,” though, is most effective as a deeply felt study of the hopelessness that comes with inaction.
Brian Dennehy, left, and Aidan Quinn in “Conversations in Tusculum.” The play is set in villas outside of Rome in the months before Caesar’s assassination.
CONVERSATIONS IN TUSCULUM
Written and directed by Richard Nelson; sets by Thomas Lynch; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; original music and sound by John Gromada; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Jenny Gersten; director of production, Ruth E. Sternberg. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Mara Manus, executive director. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village; (212) 967-7555. Through March 30. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.