Trying to account for the otherwise-inexplicable fact that beautiful women would want to engage in sexual congress with him, Henry Kissinger suggested that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. That may explain why so many characters in Robert Cohen's play about the life of Niccolò Machiavelli sport boners. Leonardo da Vinci gets his mast up to three-quarters when jealously describing rival Michelangelo's sculpture of David and its "quivering buttocks." The tyrant Cesare Borgia nearly rams his tongue down the throat of a secretary he wants to seduce.
And there is Machiavelli himself, whose admiration of the bloodthirsty Borgia prompts him to abandon his city, friends and wife to work for the tyrant.
That's what trips up Cohen's smart, well-researched play. The connection between Machiavelli and Borgia—the man, or muse, who inspired the classic of political philosophy The Prince—is so strong that everything else in Cohen's play seems an afterthought. And that would seem to undermine Cohen's theme: not only is the pen not mightier than the sword, but it's also not even mightier than the phallus.
Cohen wants to persuade us there's more to Machiavelli than the starkly empirical analyst whose treatise on political reality has been required reading for nearly 500 years in Political Oppression 101. He wants us to remember Machiavelli the humanitarian, the Italian nationalist, the lover of liberty and freedom, the writer whose greatest claim to literary fame (in Cohen's eyes) is his contribution to Italian comedy and the invention of commedia dell'arte. Nice try, but no cannelloni. Deconstructionists might observe that Cohen's pen escaped him, in that the carnal, sadistic Borgia dominates this play, even though he appears in just three of the six scenes.
That might be the fault of Cohen the director as much as Cohen the playwright. Jeff Takacs is a very skilled young actor whose Borgia is imposing and commanding—perhaps too imposing and commanding; he turns the play into a Borgia bio. Reining in Takacs—who relies too much on dramatic physical flourishes and not enough on subtlety —might make this Borgia more a human tyrant rather than an incarnation of Mars.
That directorial decision makes it impossible for us to understand the "other" Machiavelli. Despite Joseph Osheroff's sensitive and dignified performance, it's hard to see him as anything but a small, cold planet orbiting the fiery sun of the evil Borgia.
The Princeat UC Irvine's Winifred Smith Hall, W. Peltason Dr. & Mesa Rd., Irvine, (949) 824-2787. Thurs.-Fri., Feb. 1-2, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. $6-$15.