Amy Freed's You, Nero, now through June 28, 2008 at Berkeley Rep, is the best screwball comedy about the Roman Empire to hit the boards since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This is no historical drama, infused with equal parts magic and poetry, of the Mary Zimmerman variety. Rather, it is shtick, shtick and more shtick -- The Borscht Belt in Berkeley! -- with forbidden love, ill-considered lust, and plenty of good-old showbiz razzle-dazzle.
Danny Scheie's performance alone makes the play worth seeing. His Nero is a wisecracking, spoiled child who gets everything he wants, no matter how barbaric or icky. Naturally the people of Rome hate him, so Nero summons an excessively earnest dramatist named Scribonius (Jeff McCarthy) to write a play that will make him more appealing to the masses. Scribonius, who apologizes to the audience early in his narration duties for stooping to the lazy convention of direct address, hates everything Nero stands for, but he hasn't had a hit in years so he takes the gig. Besides, the penalty for not doing so is death.
Truth told, Scribonius has never connected with his audience in his entire pathetic career. Despite his poor track record, or maybe because of it, Scribonius seizes on the Nero commission as his big chance to redeem himself. He will write a script of such power and persuasion that it will cause the great Nero himself to reconsider his wicked and corrosive ways and awaken his dormant sense of civic duty, thus saving the Roman Empire from certain doom and changing the course of history. All because of a work of art.
These wooly-headed artists and their high-minded conceits, we think, and that's what we should still be thinking when we leave the theater. Unfortunately, very late in the game, Freed channels Scribonius and goes all sanctimonious on us, all but blaming the problems of contemporary society on the demise of serious theater and the ascendency of opiates like American Idol.
Yawn. Let's get back to that glorious catastrophe known as Nero, whom Scheie plays as an inveterate manipulator, with all the impulse control and empathy of a basket full of agitated cobras. Freed is on solid terrain here, giving Scheie authentically insincere Hollywood-insider dialogue that would seem perfectly normal coming out of the mouths of the guys on Entourage but is delightfully incongruous when uttered by Nero clad in little more than a pair of leopard-print briefs and sandals.
Scheie sells his monster hard, and against our better judgment we love Nero for it. So when he flees his mother, Agrippina's, approach, we expect to encounter a character who will be every bit his match. As Agrippina, Lori Larson, decked out in bright purple and flanked by a pair of snarling tigers, makes a promising entrance. Unfortunately, there's more apprehension than malice behind her eyes, as if she were not entirely comfortable being as malevolent and wretched as Scheie is duplicitous and ruthless. It's a high bar, but Freed has put it there.
Nero is also a tough act to follow for Susannah Schulman as Poppaea, who, like Agrippina, wants Scribonius to write her into Nero's fabula praetexta in order to further her position in court. Indeed, everyone wants a piece of Scribonius now that he's gotten the creative green light from Nero. Even Nero's trusted advisors, Burrus (Mike McShane) and Seneca (Richard Doyle), want to pull Scribonius's strings. All of which gives the hapless Scribonius the fanciful notion that he can make a difference. What fools these dramatists be.
Fools, it turns out, are some of the best things about You, Nero. McShane and Doyle are marvelous together as Burrus and Seneca, and even better as the eunuchs Beppo and Zippo, with McShane's Beppo stealing numerous scenes.
Kasey Mahaffey as Fabiolo and Young Nero is also great fun to watch. His scene with Agrippina as Scribonius is writing the story of young Nero is particularly effective. In fact, all three actors work well together during that scene, which seamlessly transitions from Scribonius's imagination to a live preview for Nero, who sits rapt on his fainting couch. "Oh I feel so understood!" gushes the ruler as he watches his life played out before him. Well how about that: Nero is not a monster at all but a misunderstood victim of a traumatic childhood. "Just one little cut," he adds softly. Uh oh. Coming from a man who thinks nothing of turning a Fabiolo into a Fabiola, this can't be good.
You, Nero runs through June 28, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information, visit berkeleyrep.org.