The evening, though, belongs to its much-feted leads. There's a callous competition within Wiest's maternal monster that is thoroughly gripping, and enough need buried beneath it all to make her somewhat sympathetic. Cumming, his take less conventional, may be even better. Finding a mature variation on his familiar man-child persona, he is a marvelously distressed exemplar of authorial ambivalence. The age gap between Wiest and Cumming also pays off nicely, creating a triangle with Konstantín that's rich in oedipal overtones.
During the too many moments Wiest and Cumming were offstage, I kept flashing to the other roles I'd like to see them tackle—and, of course, I kept coming back to Gertrude and Hamlet. Cumming has only a couple of years left to get away with it. If it happens, I hope he and Wiest find themselves in a production where not just their acting—but the play, too—is the thing.
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Reviewed by Adam R. Perlman
at the Public Theater
The relationship between Julius Caesar and a sea of adversaries—Cato, Cicero, Cassius, Brutus—takes time to sort through in Richard Nelson's Conversations in Tusculum. After all, some of these men later conspired to kill Caesar. But Nelson's nose doesn't smell evil in ancient Rome as much as parallels between Caesar's effect on the Roman republic and a Republican's, George W. Bush, on the United States.
For Act 1, Nelson plunges into the world of Tusculum—a country enclave outside Rome where the elite meet to summer—in 45 B.C., imagining what Caesar's vanquished enemies, worried for their nation's future, said and feared about him. Using a few of Thomas Lynch's set pieces, Nelson delicately shuffles his six-actor cast around the Anspacher Theater stage, permitting the audience to feel as if it's listening to wiretapped private chats. Given the dialogue's pitched urgency—and several well-rendered performances—Nelson gently prods the audience to infer Caesar-Bush comparisons. Then, in Act 2, Nelson takes out a hammer and bludgeons the audience with it.
Here's the setup: Caesar has been victorious over Pompey, a Roman noble, in a civil war. Pompey's allies—the great orator, writer, and thinker Cicero (Brian Dennehy), Brutus (Aidan Quinn), Cassius (David Strathairn), and Cato—have surrendered to Caesar. Cato has killed himself to avoid Caesar's gloating, but the rest of the men have elected to face the Roman leader's psychological torment.
For example, Cassius' wife (who is Brutus' sister) is sent to Spain by their mercenary mother, Servilia (Maria Tucci), for Caesar's pleasure, to divert him from a bloody war campaign. Strathairn portrays Cassius as soul-crushed yet hoping to cure Rome someday of Caesar's despotism. Brutus weds Cato's young daughter Porcia (Gloria Reuben) to defy Caesar and his mother—and it's defiance you can sniff: Quinn limns a man boiling in fury and awash in patriotism, a stone with facets of irony, tenderness, and political pragmatism. This last quality is salient: Brutus and Cassius visit one last time with Caesar, pleading with him for the Roman good. Their failure to make headway, related in a long Act 2 scene, is what leads them to conspire, history says.
Nelson occasionally injects levity via Syrus (Joe Grifasi), an itinerant actor who periodically arrives to give a speech (Brutus writes anti-Caesar screeds to pass the time) or ask if he's interrupting sensitive conversations. Grifasi nicely situates Syrus as not quite comic relief, not quite a symbol of the Roman proletariat.
When Cassius and Brutus go off to confront Caesar, Cicero stays behind. He's in Tusculum mourning his daughter's death in childbirth. And Dennehy cuts a pitiable figure: His eyes often search when he speaks, as if underscoring his character's knowledge that no matter the power of his words—even the words of a tract called Discussions in Tusculum, which inspired Nelson—Cicero is utterly powerless beside Caesar, a self-proclaimed god.
And this is where Nelson's Caesar-Bush bashing becomes more shrill than subtle. In Act 2, referring to Caesar, Brutus says, "He's surrounded by bad people." At another point, referring to Rome, Cicero says, "I love what was once its great messy optimism, its blind hope and sense of being invulnerable." When Cassius recalls Rome fighting the Syrians—"these 'people' were just out to kill us…to show contempt and hatred for a whole civilization"—the allusion is unbearable. It's over the top. It's simply unnecessary conversation.
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Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs