“Botticelli in the Fire” is a culture-wars play, with gay artists under siege from all sides as powerful politicians and opportunistic clerics fan angry mobs. The artists are Sandro Botticelli, a notorious playboy who swings every which way, and his young assistant, Leonardo da Vinci.
This is the historically free-spirited fantasia by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, getting its full-length premiere at Woolly Mammoth — a shorter version played Toronto in 2016 — in the closing slot of a season planned a year ago as the Trump presidency began. The drama mashes up Renaissance Florence with 21st-century snark and ignored text messages — to get in the mood as he paints “The Birth of Venus,” Botticelli tells Leonardo to cue up his chill-out playlist. Persecution is a given: Lorenzo de Medici is corrupt and vindictive, and Girolamo Savonarola claims it is the will of the plague-ravaged people that homosexuals be burned in public.
It’s definitely a Woolly play, a trademark roasted, toasted and validated by a unanimous city council proclamation Monday night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall during a celebration of Howard Shalwitz, who ends his nearly 40 years of running Woolly this September. The subversive “Botticelli” swaggers with unbridled simulated sex, full nudity, unexpected disco and — why not? — soothing meaning in peanut butter sandwiches.
But underneath the glamorous design (a showbizzy tinsel curtain flutters in the shadows behind Misha Kachman’s set) and the catty acting, it feels like a struggling nephew of earlier, fiercer works that come to mind as you watch, from the progressive politics of “Angels in America” to the physical limning in Tim Miller’s “My Queer Body” at Woolly in 1994. Miller, let’s recall, had been branded as one of the “NEA Four” who sued the government in 1990 when they were denied funding, a fact in sync with Tannahill’s aggressively queered history.
There’s brio enough in Marti Lyons’s calm, tense staging to keep you engaged, from Ivania Stack’s flamboyant costumes to the exacting pools of light from Colin K. Bills to Jon Hudson Odom’s mischievous turn as Botticelli. Odom has had a terrific season as narrator characters, channeling writers’ voices in works such as this one, “An Octoroon” and “Our Town.” And with his hip cocked and his dialogue dripping with innuendo, Odom’s Botticelli is a pansexual hotshot.
The problem is the other characters. Lorenzo is a pro forma gangster, and while actor Cody Nickell hits the expected flippant marks with sophisticated menace, having Lorenzo play squash with the un-athletic Botticelli isn’t as interesting as it sounds. Botticelli is sleeping with Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice, who is posing for the “Venus” painting, so the dilemma is terribly conventional.
As a woman of overlooked intelligence, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan has a nice edge as Clarice, and Craig Wallace brings smiling power and composure to Savonarola. That smug role offers no surprise, though, even during a TV interview, and Tannahill’s dialogue wears you down with its predictable positions and banal swearing. Perversely, the perpetual profane emphasis de-emphasizes everything.
It all leads up to the fanatical 1497 Bonfire of the Vanities, when Botticelli apparently joined the fervor for torching sinful things and sacrificed some paintings. Tannahill, author of the 2015 critique “Theater of the Unimpressed,” is interested in what artists and citizens will cling to or give up under political duress. But the question of complicity in our own downfall feels less pressing in this tarted-up melodrama than it did in Woolly’s similarly hot-titled season opener, Max Frisch’s post-World War II “The Arsonists.”
There’s a bigger picture, and it’s how long Shalwitz’s Woolly has subverted conventions and cried out with civic purpose. “Botticelli in the Fire” won’t make my cut of top 10 provocations in a personal list that started with Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon” (starring Nancy Robinette and Jennifer Mendenhall) in 1988, and Shalwitz’s fingerprints will be all over the next season, which he chose as the troupe eventually hired his successor, Maria Manuela Goyanes. But its torquing of art and conscience, scandalizing an audience that has demonstrated a high tolerance for being jolted, is a characteristic capstone for Shalwitz, whose theater has only gained purpose through the years by never settling for sure things.
Botticelli in the Fire by Jordan Tannahill. Directed by Marti Lyons. Sound designer and composer, Christian Frederickson; choreography, Robb Hunter; intimacy coach, Lorraine Ressegger-Slone. With Earl T. Kim, Dawn Ursula and James Crichton. Through June 24 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. $59-$89. 202-393-3939 or woollymammoth.net.