Reviewed by David Spencer
Richard Nelson’s plays are always fascinating in concept, because—like Stoppard, in some regards, but generally against a more intimate backdrop, generally featuring a more free-wheelingly colloquial patois and generally warmer, more suited to off-Broadway houses—their premises alone are enough to spark provocative discussion of the themes dramatized. And when he delivers big, he delivers powerfully.
Like any prolific dramatist, though, he can fall shy of the mark, and Conversations in Tusculum at the Public Theatre proves one of his more modest accomplishments‑though not for lack of large ambition. Using a very informal, American-rhythmed diction, he presents no less than a look at the conspirators who assassinated Caesar; not as Shakespeare painted them, but as metaphors for contemporary men dedicated to public service, watching the balance of government and good works deteriorate from the head down. And they don’t start out as conspirators, but rather as men trying to work within the system, make the best of a bad lot, cooperate when they can—but increasingly find that their best, most sincere efforts only become fodder for the offstage Caesar to play power games, and in some cases just use these men outright, to secure his position and influence. And a seductive power it is, for they find themselves charmed and flattered before betrayed; and the betrayals are small: tiny demonstrations of proving just who has the upper hand in all eventualities. In Nelson’s play (which, per usual, he also directed), these guys are good men and true who finally see no other way out. And the play’s final moment (delivered in a manner I won’t spoil) is their decision.
As the title suggests, Conversations in Tusculum is a “talking heads” piece, but the problem, at least it was one for me, is that there’s no—I dislike using this term, it’s a little too “Drama 101” and an oversimplification, but it’s the cleanest expression of what’s missing—inciting incident to give the proceedings tension. To be sure, if you know your history, or even your Shakespeare, you grok the context, but that intellectual awareness doesn’t amplify the emotional drama being played out, with the result that, as its characters slowly become aware, the play gradually meanders to the place where Caesar’s behavior provokes the gestalt of conspiracy.
Of course, this is fully intentional—exactly as Nelson wishes it. He pointedly does not want to dramatize extremists, but rather, how average men are driven to extremes in gradual stages. And I even think there may be a way to have accomplished that. But he would have to have reconceived the introduction of “the game” to the audience, found a device or way of framing a bit of info right at the top that buys him the time he needs to do the rest at a measured pace. (In the musical theatre, we call it “setting up your permissions,” which is to say somehow letting the audience in on the ground rules as you start, so they understand the kind of evening they’re about to see, and the particular lens of perception you want them to look through. In this case, getting the audience’s permission to take things at a slow pace toward a huge goal. For various reasons I won’t go into here, it’s more important to set up permissions quickly in a musical, but the strategy never hurt a straight play…and indeed, if you examine the anecdotal history of most shows in development, you’ll find that somewhere along the way, the creative team struggled with how to make a certain vital thing, or things, clear to an audience that wasn’t getting them, or resisting them—and almost always a solution encompassing setting up a permission was involved.)
Though the newly published version of the play (which was included in the critics’ press kits) gives no indication that the Conversations in Tusculum is to be given anything other than a staging that literally represents ancient Rome, Nelson, as director, has opted for an era-less contemporary dress, the characters in the casual wear of gentlemen farmers. Along with the colloquial diction, this certainly goes to the strengths of the cast, whose headliners, notable for contemporary roles on film and TV David Strathairn, Brian Dennehy, Aiden Quinn and Joe Grifasi.
their formidable collective presence and power is reduced to a very low
here, as if we’d been invited to observe them at the dinner table. It
until far too late that we get the feeling of men whispering secrets
across the table, and trusting
each other with their
lives for doing so…