Claudia Shear and Jonathan Cake
in Restoration
(© Joan Marcus)
Claudia Shear and Jonathan Cake
in Restoration
(© Joan Marcus)
The opportunity to remove centuries of grime from Michelangelo's iconic statue of David gives an art restorer the chance to also cleanse her psyche and spirit in Claudia Shear's genial humanistic comedy Restoration, currently being given a brisk, yet sensitive production at New York Theatre Workshop under Christopher Ashley's direction.

As the play opens, nothing would suggest that Giulia (played by Shear) might ever consider being selected as the professional who would work on such an historic project. She's toiling in Brooklyn on small pieces, mostly from private collections, and teaching art history at Brooklyn College. Yet, through a series of coincidences, Professor Williams (the wittily dry Alan Mandell), her mentor and a former colleague, arrives to tell her that she'll be interviewing for the job in just 10 days.

Although both Italian culture minister Marciante (the multiply cast and always effective Natalija Nogulich) and Florentine bigwig Daphne (played with crispness and surprising vulnerability by Tina Benko) have concerns about Giulia's temperament (she's been sued for slander for her views on a peer's work), she gets the job -- which means she has exactly 12 months to refresh the statue.

It's during her time working on the piece (cleverly and effectively indicated in Scott Pask's handsomely lavish scenic design that's splendidly lit by designer David Lander) that Giulia also finds herself shedding detritus from her past that has left her quick to judge, anti-social, and sullenly withdrawn. The primary catalyst for her change is the perpetual presence of Max (Jonathan Cake), a dashing and gregarious security guard, who's eager to engage Giulia as she works. He shares the English poetry that he loves with her and attempts to make her understand that her almost callous aloofness hurts no one as much as it does her. Eventually, he also begins sharing a little bit of his baggage and the realities of his home life with her.

With the realization that Max's marriage may not be as ideal as it seems -- along with the news of Professor Williams' cancer diagnosis and a confrontation that allows Giulia to understand that even the drop-dead gorgeous Daphne has problems -- Giulia begins to look outside of herself and to allow herself to be not only a consummate professional who will fight for what she believes in but also a more genuine person. It's a touching growth process to watch.

Shear clearly knows how to deliver each of her zingers to maximum effect and even as the actor/playwright maximizes the comedy in her piece, she also mines the character's more melancholy quality, communicating volumes with a rueful half-smile or with subtle changes in body language.

Equally impressive is Cake's performance as Max. The actor exquisitely captures the character's randy teenage machismo, simultaneously tempering it with the regrets of adulthood. By the time Max reveals his own special connection to the statue that he guards, theatergoers are cheering for him as much as they are Giulia.