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Richard Nelson makes no bones about it, conveying in the title of his history play, "Conversations in Tusculum," that this will be a civilized evening of intellectual debate -- not a smackdown night at the fights.

Richard Nelson makes no bones about it, conveying in the title of his history play, “Conversations in Tusculum,” that this will be a civilized evening of intellectual debate — not a smackdown night at the fights. Shortly before the events of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” characters who will figure in that tragedy meet outside Rome to discuss Caesar’s megalomaniacal behavior — and what it bodes for the Republic. After 2½ hours in which a starry cast draws scary political parallels to our own times, the audience reaction may well be “Gee, thanks, people, but I’d rather read it myself.”

That’s not to be unkind to the actors, seasoned thesps who have the intelligence, as well as the technique, to give weight to the historical characters they play and voice to the quasi-contemporary idiom with which Nelson fills their mouths.

At the center of these dialogues, Aidan Quinn plays it bluff and blunt — and painfully, poignantly clueless — as honest Brutus, driven to near-madness trying to interpret Caesar’s shifting moods and inconsistent actions. Has he truly forgiven those soldier-statesmen who betrayed him by siding with Pompey in his ill-fated revolt? Or is he just sadistically toying with them?

“I’m always thinking about it,” says the brooding Cassius, the most neurotic member of this elite circle, in David Strathairn’s elegant perf. “Trying to figure it out. What it means. Or meant. What it says about me.” If Cassius’ obsessively analytical thought and excruciatingly precise language make him sound like a U.S. senator watching his party lose its congressional majority — well, Nelson would probably not deny it.

As he takes pains to point out, in his dual capacity as scribe and director, America is in much the same position today as the Roman Republic was in 45 B.C. —  a once-great government now fatally weakened because it stupidly bought into the cult of personality and mistook demagoguery for strong leadership. 

As Brutus, Cassius and other members of the ruling elite cautiously meet in their luxurious villas in Tusculum (minimally dressed but warmed by the earth tones of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting), trying to read Caesar’s mind and pondering his political intentions, Caesar has already left the Oval Office and is marching into the throne room.

The way Nelson presents the dilemma of these senators, something critical has been missing from their deliberations — the wisdom of experienced elder statesmen who can interpret the conflicting messages from Caesar and advise a course of action to save the democratic Republic before it is replaced by a monarchy or, even worse, a dictatorship. 

With Cato dead by his own hand — his suicide no cry of despair but a symbolic gesture for men of honor to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs — that sage can only be Cicero (Brian Dennehy). But the great man is badly off his game, in deep seclusion at his country villa, writing philosophical treatises and mourning his daughter’s death.

Dennehy is a big man with a big voice, and on the intimate stage of the Anspacher, this commanding thesp seems to rise up like a mountain from the ground. In size and voice, he seems a shrunken old man when Cicero makes his first appearance at Brutus’ villa. “What else has changed since I’ve been gone?” he asks plaintively. “How lost have we become?”

But once that big brain of his wakes up, the great orator finds his voice, allowing Dennehy to draw air into his lungs and give the play a breath of life. While it hardly constitutes dramatic action, the awakening of Cicero to his duty as a statesman at least raises the temperature of this articulate but entirely too-cool play — and for a moment makes it feel as if something is happening here beyond the verbal skirmishes of characters too tired to put up a real fight.

Conversations in Tusculum

Public Theater/Anspacher; 275 seats; $60 top

Production

A Public Theater presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by Richard Nelson.

Creative

Sets, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; original music and sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Matthew L. Silver. Opened March 11, 2008. Reviewed March 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Brutus - Aidan Quinn Porcia cq - Gloria Reuben Cassius - David Strathairn Servilia - Maria Tucci Cicero - Brian Dennehy Syrus - Joe Grifasi
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