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Though they don’t usually get the big bucks for their efforts, playwrights can sleep with a healthy conscience if they engage in two of their craft’s highest callings: re-imagining history, and serving as moral conscience for the rest of their immoral neighbors.
Amy Freed scores big on both fronts in her wildly farcical comedy You, Nero, currently receiving its world-premiere production at South Coast Repertory. Though the funniest and most freewheeling of her four plays staged by SCR in the past 10 years, Freed’s fanciful rendering of the Roman emperor Nero and the unfortunate scribe commissioned to write a vanity piece for him definitely falls under the heading of “humor in a jugular vein.”
As much about the empty-headed, soulless culture of excess in contemporary America as the bloody extravagance of Imperial Roman entertainment, You, Nero revels in lowbrow bawdiness while also delivering trenchant 21st-century criticism. Although the point is ultimately hammered home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer—a society that jettisons morally substantive works in favor of decadent bombast tailored for the lowest common denominator sacrifices a huge chunk of its collective soul in the process—the ride is so riotously entertaining that Freed’s own bombast is easily excused.
Making the ride so satisfying is the exemplary cast, headed by Danny Scheie’s delirious Nero, a bizarre combination of Richard Simmons and Pol Pot. Scheie attacks the role with panache and intensity, effortlessly cycling from endearingly insufferable to wickedly obscene and back again. Rarely is a morally corrupt, narcissistic tyrant this goddamn likable.
Nero’s foil is Scribonius (a perfectly cast John Vickery), a dramatist who yearns to write serious, tragic epics questioning the brutal course that Nero’s Rome is hell-bent on following. But in an age when thousands fill the Colosseum to watch elaborately staged sea skirmishes and bloody gladiator battles, no one pays his highbrow fare much heed. Forced to work with mimes on the outskirts of Rome, Scribonius leaps at the opportunity to write a play about Nero that is assured of full houses—even though he realizes he might be selling out in the most horrendous way possible.
While Nero wants a play that will convince the common Roman to love him, Scribonius desperately tries to craft a piece that will force a shift in the dictator’s consciousness, something that will inspire him to greatness rather than merely feed his already monstrous ego.
That task is complicated, however, by the two women in Nero’s life: his overbearing, incestuous mother, Agrippina (Lori Larsen, who could stand to be a bit more overbearing), and his oversexed mistress, Poppaea (a suitably insane Caralyn Kozlowski). As ambitious as Nero is self-aggrandizing, both women demand in their own seductively twisted ways that Scribonius shape the play to suit their own Machiavellian schemes.
But when Nero decides that not only will be the play be about him, but that he will also play the lead—and only—role, Scribonius realizes to his horror that he’s unwittingly created an Imperial Roman Idol—with terrible consequences.
The play is obviously less about a first-century world power in decline than it is about a 21st-century world power in the throes of its own identity crisis. Freed places most of the blame for that not on material greed or imperial ambitions, but on a relentlessly self-absorbed, morally flabby culture obsessed with cheap, fatuous spectacle heavy on shock value and cruelty, but woefully light on poetic aspiration and spiritual inspiration.
The opportunity that Scribonius senses is that Nero has a chance to re-energize Roman culture by seizing the historical moment and righting an errant empire. But it’s painfully clear that he—and his subject—are far too addicted to the tawdry lure of the lesser angels of their nature. Instead of even the promise of a Barack Obama-like hint of change, they want a train wreck hosted by Jeff Probst.
Of course, Freed’s imagining that a striking shift in a culture’s values could be triggered by something as simple as a play is absolutely Pollyanna-ish, but, Jesus, it’s an attractive sentiment. And the fact that a playwright is even posing the question of whether modern America wants—or could even recognize the worth of—morally questioning, painfully self-critical work in an era when Simon Cowell wields more influence over the cultural zeitgeist than any serious artist is reason to applaud.
One thing’s for certain: If another Andrew Lloyd-fucking-Webber musical results in the Orange County Performing Arts Center going up in flames like Nero’s Rome, Amy Freed can smugly say she told us so.
You, Nero at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Jan. 25. $23-$64.
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