Review - Conversations In Tusculum: March Madness

By: Mar. 12, 2008
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I suppose it's too late in our current president's administration to see Conversations In Tusculum, playwright/director Richard Nelson's fact-based prequel to assassination of Julius Caesar, completely as a commentary on George W. Bush. Sure, certain thoughts may come to mind when the Roman dictator is quoted as saying that the country needs war in order to stay focused and smiles of recognition may follow that other line about his abstaining from alcohol but with less than a year to go before a new president takes office, the play would seem purposeless if only taken in that sense.

And that's the problem with Conversations In Tusculum, which takes place in May of 45 B.C.; we already know that both JC and GWB are out of here in 10 months and though the play has its interesting scenes and the author often seems on The Edge of saying something significant, he never delivers more than the expected. It's a wordy piece and the excellent cast can keep you clinging to those words, but we don't need two and a half hours of conversation to come to the climatic conclusion that those who love Caesar feel they must now kill him because they love their country more.

The major characters, dressed comfortably contemporary by Susan Hilferty, live very well in the hillsides of Tusculum, just outside Rome. If Caesar is a tyrant, they show no outside signs of suffering from his tyranny.

Brutus, played with simmering intensity by Aidan Quinn, fought against Caesar on the side of Pompey in the recent civil war and was pardoned and promoted to high rank after being captured, but under humbling and heart-breaking circumstances. (Brutus' description of these events contain Nelson's most captivating writing.) Unlike in Shakespeare's depiction, here Brutus is the aggressor in wanting Caesar stopped while his brother-in-law Cassius, played with quiet cerebral staidness by David Strathairn, seems emotionally defeated by the man who forgave him, too, after fighting on the side of Pompey. ("That forgiveness was the strongest leash he could ever have found," says Brutus.) Though professing love for both, the unseen Caesar also loves to pit the two against each other for his amusement.

While the neighboring Cicero (Brian Dennehy, at turns imposing and understated) writes of his desired return to a more democratic republic, he's also concerned with his lack of sexual prowess with his 17-year-old bride. Gloria Reuben (as Brutus' wife, Porcia) and Maria Tucci (as his mother, Servilia), play their supporting roles with underutilized dignity.

What little lightness there is in the piece comes from the character Syrus (an amusing Joe Grifasi), an actor who makes the rounds among his well-off friends for extended houseguest stays. Late in the second act Brutus remarks, "You can say things in a play that-you can't or dare not say in life," and before you know it, Syrus is giving a performance that says exactly what everyone hasn't been saying for the past two acts. And the play ends just as we're getting to the good stuff.


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