Still, in concert with a theater sharpie, director Nicholas Martin, Freed harvests more than her share of laughs, particularly in her evocation of the parallels in public tastes between A.D. 64 and A.D. 2011 — and even more so in the title character, a megalomaniacal sicko who marshals the Roman rabble’s thirst for chills and thrills by making a complete spectacle of himself. The delightfully snide Danny Scheie purrs, simpers, fumes and camps it up grandly as Nero, whose feline perversity and hyper self-dramatizing put one in mind of a diabolical cousin of Bruno Tonioli.
“You, Nero” is the second play to make it onto an Arena stage this fall courtesy of the company’s pioneering resident playwright program; Karen Zacarias’s “The Book Club Play” was the first. By featuring both so prominently in its season, Arena is pushing new American play development ever more forcefully to the forefront of its agenda, much as Signature Theatre has over the past several seasons challenged its audience with a series of musical commissions yielding a mix of exhilarating and lukewarm results.
That’s the tricky nature of play-building. And one hopes that dedicated Arena playgoers will appreciate both the adventure the company is on and the pleasures of Freed’s academic burlesque. As in her earlier play, “The Beard of Avon,” in which she lampooned the Oxfordians by postulating that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a veritable posse of Elizabethan notables — including Elizabeth I — “You, Nero” places the conjecture over historical events squarely in the context of modern public sentiment. (As with accounts of the life of Shakespeare, chronicles of the exploits of emperor Nero are highly speculative.)
The decadent Nero is unpopular with the intelligentsia, having banned the playing of tragedy in favor of lightweight entertainment such as chariot races and gladiator death matches — the 1st century’s answer to Bravo TV’s lineup. “The adrenaline that comes of knowing you’re about to see real life and death — not some quaint imagined act,” grudgingly marvels the out-of-work actor Batheticus, played by the priceless Laurence O’Dwyer, as he sits through a bloodbath at the Hippodrome, hilariously orchestrated by set designer James Noone and the technical team, with severed hands and legs flying up from a central pit. (A later gag, in which a large reptile torments a member of a proselytizing religion, is a nifty use of anachronism.)
Aware that the unappetizing shenanigans at his court, such as his dalliance with the conniving Poppaea (Susannah Schulman), are not endearing him to anyone, Nero decides that a more conventional drama might be used to burnish his reputation. So he recruits a terrified, down-in-the-mouth dramatist, one Scribonius of Carthage (Jeff McCarthy, who intrepidly assumed the role after Marc Vietor left during previews), to compose a hagiographic piece about him for an upcoming arts festival.
Playwrights these days seem entranced by the idea of political will being forced on art: Is it a coincidence that the play just across Arena’s main corridor, Bill Cain’s Shakespearean fantasia “Equivocation,” also deals with a dramatist pressured to fabricate events to prop up a ruler’s image? In the more serendipitous “You, Nero,” it’s the unintended consequences of the danger in which the writer is placed that has the ironic payoff. Scribonius decides that the way to cast Nero in a sympathetic light is to invent tragedy’s modern handmaiden, naturalism: He shows the emperor a scene he’s written in which Nero as a boy is mentally tortured and lasciviously set upon by his mother Agrippina (Nancy Robinette, in the wholly suitable countenance of living, breathing gargoyle).
That Nero takes absolutely the wrong lesson from the viewing is one of the comic high points of the play; that it works so well is a testament to the fine line Scheie keeps to. His Nero is so giddily unleashed that you can’t look away, even when he makes a present to his newest infatuation (the superior Kasey Mahaffy) of, gulp, pieces of his own anatomy.
McCarthy has the aplomb to carry off the role of charming classical hack, and Noone’s set and Gabriel Berry’s costumes confer on the proceedings the ambiance of a well-heeled toga party — apt for a play that is cause for modest celebration.
by Amy Freed. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Set, James Noone; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lighting, Matthew Richards; sound, Drew Levy; original music, Mark Bennett; hair and wigs, Cookie Jordan; dramaturg, Aaron Malkin. With John Vennema, Jonathan W. Colby, Leigh Marie Marshall, Philip McLeod, Sarah Moser, Marlon Russ, Nicholas Yenson. About two hours. Through Jan. 1 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.