Nero Worship: The Roman emperor shops his hagiography.
Nero Worship: The Roman emperor shops his hagiography.

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Nero Claudius Caesar was 17 when the suspicious death of his adopted father made him the fifth emperor of Rome. He was in his early 20s when he had his mother, Agrippina, killed. He was 26 when that famous fire reduced much of his capital to ash while he (apocryphally) fiddled with his, uh, lyre. That same year, he began singing in public, apparently believing this might persuade his terrified subjects to love him. He was 30 when he committed suicide.

You, Nero takes us only so far as the singing. It ends where The Godfather ends, with its subject securing his hold on power by mustering the savagery to murder within his own family. But where Michael Corleone had to learn to suppress his conscience on his own, Nero, in Amy Freed’s imaginative but unkempt retelling, has an unwitting tutor.

Freed, the playwright who gave us The Beard of Avon—an investigation into the provenance of Shakespeare’s plays much funnier than the recent Roland Emmerich film Anonymous—has found in this dark hour of Roman history fertile ground to consider the limitations of art as a civilizing influence. She’s invented a playwright, Scribonius, who serves as a kind of Aaron Sorkin to Nero’s Simon Cowell—a man suffering no dearth of self-importance who nevertheless possesses a genuine gift for the kind of edu-medicinal storytelling that that earlier great civilization, the Greeks, invented and lived by.

Scribonius fears that audiences crave only base, bloody entertainments, an appetite Nero nurtures. Early in the show, a jet of blood squirts up from the pit beneath Arena’s Fichandler stage, followed by several mercifully unconvincing hacked-off limbs. Sex is depicted at the same playful remove, with art of various carnal embraces hanging from the ceiling. (James Noone designed the set.)

As You, Nero opens, the tyrant has banned the performance of tragedies. The form is too dangerous, too coiled with potential to rouse the masses from their slumber. What artist wouldn’t want to believe this? As Freed points out in the program, the Greeks gave us drama and democracy both, and there’s evidence they believed the former could teach us to be wiser, more careful practitioners of the latter. Here in Rome, the tragedy ban has driven Scribonius into obscurity. He laments being reduced to relaying his woes via his least favorite device, direct address—our first indication of the piece’s Muppety zeal for self-referential gags and puns.

Jeff McCarthy is affable company as Scribonius. Danny Scheie returns from the show’s original 2009 West Coast production as Nero, playing the part as a fey, high-voiced lisp-talker—the way gay men were often portrayed in 1980s sitcoms, basically. Even in a piece named for a man whose lack of empathy was legend, the portrayal still feels like it’s in questionable taste. In any event, the character is a sexual omnivore, his lust extending even to his own mother. And unlike Oedipus, he inhaled.

Because Nero believes Scribonius to be of sufficient spine to tell him the truth, he commissions the out-of-fashion playwright to pen his hagiography. Ever the optimist, Scribonius sees the gig as an opportunity—first and foremost, to avoid being castrated or burned alive, but also, just maybe, to reform the monster. His pedantic impulse begins with a title: Nero, the Just and Good Emperor. Like a screenwriter answerable to too many producers, he finds himself set upon by a raft of players seeking to influence his narrative: the senators Burrus and Seneca, as well as Agrippina, Poppaea (Nero’s mistress), and Fabiolo (Nero’s boy toy). Scribonius stands his ground, but neither the most deliberate artist nor the most disciplined hack can control how an audience will interpret his work.

A scene wherein Scribonius rehearses his actors, who alternately look to him for direction and ask him to butt out, has an agility that is otherwise largely absent in a show that starts broad and only gets bigger. Nero’s coronation as an arena rocker felt gaudy and excessive to me, if that isn’t an absurd complaint to make of a show centered around a figure whose name has come to mean self-absorption and excess. Or even if it is. My favorite jokes were the tiniest and most random, like when a list of Scribonius’s credits includes something called The Leopards of Cherbourg. It’s purely of matter of—what’s that thing? Ah, yes: taste.