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Conversations in Tusculum

Richard Nelson's intriguing but often tedious new play draws parallels between Ancient Rome and the present-day.

Brian Dennehy and Aidan Quinn
in Conversations in Tusculum
(© Michal Daniel)
The political unrest of ancient Rome has ample resonances for contemporary domestic politics, at least as envisioned in Conversations in Tusculum, Richard Nelson's intriguing but often tedious new play getting its world premiere at the Public Theater. Unfortunately, a heaviness hangs over the majority of the play, with only a few moments of humor, and it's quite likely that one's attention will wander during the nearly two-and-a-half hour production.

The play's action -- and more often than not, inaction -- centers around Brutus (Aidan Quinn), who has lost his sense of purpose after surrendering to Julius Caesar following the Civil War, in which he sided with Caesar's opponent, Pompey. Caesar not only pardoned Brutus, but promoted him, an act that Brutus looks upon as one of cruelty rather than kindness. It put him in the Roman leader's debt, and broke him as a man who once valued his own strength and independence.

As Caesar fights a war in Spain, Brutus languishes in Tusculum, a small country town where many well-connected and similarly beaten down Romans have come to rest. These include his brother-in-law Cassius (David Strathairn) and the philosopher Cicero (Brian Dennehy). Also inhabiting the play are Brutus' wife Porcia (Gloria Reuben), his mother Servilia (Maria Tucci), and an actor named Syrus (Joe Grifasi), who is a houseguest.

The play takes place in the summer of 45 B.C., ending about six months prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar. While it may at first seem to be a prequel to Shakespeare's famous tragedy, it tackles the historical record from a slightly different angle, examining in minute detail the state of dissatisfaction that could lead upstanding citizens to overthrow their ruler.

During the lengthy first act, Brutus and company spin their wheels talking about how their entire way of life, and the country that they continue to love, is disappearing thanks to a leader that seems hell-bent on destroying their Republic. While Cicero advises patience, Brutus can't help but wonder if there'll be anything left to preserve, "while we sit and read, and we write our books, put on our plays, make money." He laments the complacency of himself and his allies who know better, and do nothing.

Under Nelson's direction, Quinn cuts a compelling and sympathetic figure as the defeated Brutus, while Strathairn's low-key delivery shows the damage done to Cassius' sense of self. Dennehy stays too easily on the surface, relying on his resonant voice to carry his performance. Reuben is excellent, allowing just the right amount of Porcia's righteous indignation to show through, particularly in her interactions with her husband. Tucci makes a good impression in a thankless part, while Grifasi seems rather out of place, and the purpose his character plays within Conversations is too ham-fisted.

Susan Hilferty's modern-dress costumes are presumably there to highlight any contemporary resonances, as the play makes it quite clear that Nelson intends to draw parallels between Caesar's regime and our current Presidential administration. There are several obvious differences, but you do have to wonder whether Nelson is sincere in advocating the fatal action in our era that Brutus eventually deems necessary in his.