It’s my first time at the Arena Stage, and I’m blown away as soon as I come around the corner from the metro. The architecture is stunning, glittering in the night lights of the revitalized Waterfront neighborhood. Inside, it’s equally stunning, with soaring windows and a beautiful, spacious interior. The staff is lovely as well, and as we walk inside the theater, I’m dazzled by the scale.
The play is You, Nero (playing now through January 1st) – a Roman-themed farce written by resident playwright Amy Freed specifically for actor Danny Scheie in the titular role a few years back at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Jeff McCarthy plays the protagonist of the piece, Scribonius, a down-on-his-luck playwright reduced to leading a mime troupe outside of Rome. Nancy Robinette plays Agrippina, Nero’s mother, Susannah Schulman plays Poppaea, Nero’s mistress, and Kasey Mahaffy plays a courtier, Fabiola. Laurence O’Dwyer and John Vennema play a number of roles, including friends of Scribonius and campy eunuchs.
McCarthy has a difficult role, setting the scene and giving us history and background while carrying the plot along in the scenes without Scheie. I recognized McCarthy from old Star Trek episodes (TNG, to be specific), and he does a fine job with what he’s given. Mahaffy has some fine comic moments, focused, naturally, on him being gelded and imitating Poppaea. But really, all the characters and the scenario are really there to tee up Scheie to chew the scenery and horrify and amuse us.
I may not be the best person to recommend a play like this. This is my first stage farce, and I’m just not used to material that’s this lightweight and free of meaning or emotional import. I think it’s funny, but I’m surprised how much it relies on cheap gay jokes out of a previous decade. Indeed, it seems a bit like an 80’s Mel Brooks farce with its off-color humor and off-piste jokes.
Nancy Robinette, who I last saw in Enda Walsh’s extraordinary New Electric Ballroom seems slightly out of place as the incestuous harpy mother to Nero. Schulman tries gamely to make her role as the vampy love interest work, but really, we’re just here for Nero. Fortunately, Scheie is a comic revelation. I can understand why McCarthy would write to his strengths. His vocal inflections, his timing, his movement – are all excellent.
This could be the right place to take the parents for a ridiculous evening of effortless laughter. I definitely want to come back for the space; I’d like to see something slightly less…slight.