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Theater Review: “You, Nero” at Arena Stage

Popular culture gets a skewering via ancient Rome in this entertaining but problematic new farce.

Jeff McCarthy as Scribonius and Danny Scheie as Nero in Arena Stage’s production of You, Nero. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

☆☆ ½ out of four

There’s a deep internal contradiction in Amy Freed’s You, Nero, currently playing at Arena Stage. On the one hand, the show is a deeply silly, enjoyably screwy comedy that is obviously intended to entertain. On the other, it’s an extremely esoteric, history-loaded morality play with a thoroughly didactic message. Goofing around, Freed (a writer-in-residence at Arena) seems to say, ain’t enough when you’re an entertainer—and what’s more, it can even be dangerous for the long-term state of society. Imagine a future—if you can stand to—with endless E! and no PBS; where Kardashians are icons of erudition and Fear Factor is the most highbrow show on television (it involves decision-making, after all).

It’s a pretty drastic dichotomy, and one that almost works, apart from an ending so nutty, and so dark, that you leave the theater feeling distinctly unsettled. In Freed’s alternative version of ancient Rome, the literati are revolting because Nero (a delightfully evil and scene-stealing Danny Scheie) has shut down the theaters and rejected high culture in favor of “arena entertainment,” meaning blood, gore, and gladiators. Scribonius (Jeff McCarthy), a washed-up playwright, is summoned to Nero’s palace to help compose the story of Nero’s life: a work dazzling enough (and generous enough with the facts) to win the dubious public over to the cruel and fickle “Emperor-sario.” Scribonius knows this is a terrible idea, and his early dealings at the palace show him how capricious and conscience-free Nero is. But egged on by his friend Burrus (the eminent Laurence O’Dwyer), Scribonius begins to wonder whether with a little thoughtful writing, he can show the emperor the error of his ways and restore sanity to Rome.

Freed has acknowledged her love of the 1980s British historical satire Blackadder, and her Nero owes a distinct debt to the mercurial character of Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson), who once abandoned her most trusted advisers to die at the hands of kidnappers because she decided to have a jolly old shindig with the ransom money instead. Scribonius’s major error is assuming he can tease some shreds of humanity out of the frivolous, sociopathic Nero (in one wince-worthy scene, Nero orders a handsome young actor to be gelded, then gilds the results and presents them to him as a trophy). After learning about Nero’s traumatic childhood at the hands of his homicidal battle-ax of a mother, Agrippina (the imposing Nancy Robinette), who takes mother-son closeness to a whole new level, Scribonius thinks he can save Nero through the ultimate CBT tactic—persuading him that none of his character flaws are his fault. But freeing the evil emperor of the last vestiges of guilt only unleashes a brand new monster instead.

As Nero, Scheie is a joy to watch—so much so that it’s hard not to root for the demented but fun-loving autocrat. McCarthy, who stepped in as Scribonius last minute, has a tough job holding his own next to this vision of twisted narcissism, but he’s convincingly shallow and angsty as a self-flagellating, guilt-ridden writer. If Nero embodies the campy fun of the show, Scribonius is all the serious stuff—the obscure cultural references (everything from Sparta to the Furies to A Chorus Line) thrown in as a nod to intellectual audience members, and the skewering Freed aims at contemporary culture. Nicholas Martin’s direction amps up the physical comedy but can feel unnecessarily brash in parts; visual jokes about alligators and blood-spewing body parts are very funny, but a scene where Nero’s concubines lie around in their underwear adds nothing to the play but awkwardness.

Freed is right to worry about the state of contemporary culture, and the prism of ancient Rome is a brilliant way through which to examine the problem. But by contrasting so many lowbrow, silly gags with a deeply thoughtful subject, it’s hard to see what she’s doing to change the situation. By incorporating a serious issue into a farce, Freed is acknowledging that our tastes are pretty base, but illuminating that fact without offering solutions gives us nothing to work with. Reality TV and our “me, me, me” culture may be taking us to hell in a handcart, but pointing out the ugly views on the way isn’t enough to put on the brakes.

You, Nero is at Arena Stage through January 1. Tickets ($40 to $85) are available through the theater’s Web site.