While Claudia Shear’s “Restoration” nominally fictionalizes the 500th birthday effort to spruce up Michelangelo’s David, it’s really out to demonstrate the restorative powers of great art and ordinary human contact on the wounded spirit. Delicate and talky, as long on wit and wisdom as it is short on incident, the La Jolla Playhouse world premiere should act on audiences in the manner of most museums: Those in a contemplative mood will find much to ponder and be enriched by, while others won’t get what the fuss is about.
Shear’s character Giulia was inspired by Cinzia Parnigoni, the real-life 2003 minister to the legendary statue’s physical and aesthetic needs. Still, the persona has been carved in the image of Shear’s previous theatrical works, her job panorama “Blown Sideways Through Life” and the Mae West celebration “Dirty Blonde.” She’s bright and funny as hell, acerbic, zaftig and not entirely comfortable in her own skin.
Bitter after an art-world scandal, Giulia has retreated from the limelight to teach and putter in her Brooklyn childhood home when a former professor (Alan Mandell) offers a lifeline. He has submitted, to the committee in Florence, her radical ideas on how to clean up a work without betraying the artist’s intent or time’s effects. (Amusing reference is made to the restored Sistine Chapel ceiling which, the prof sniffs, now looks like a Disney cartoon suitable for singing bunnies.)
Once she’s ensconced on her scaffolding, caressing and chatting up her subject like a real-life lover, the play itself turns into a “people museum,” with human works of art on display for Giulia’s consideration. Museum security guard Max (Daniel Serafini-Sauli) proves something other than a preening, fanny-pinching seducer. Her old mentor reveals the beating heart within his academic austereness, while a press liaison (Kate Shindle) gives the lie to any notion that the dazzlingly beautiful have it easier than we plain folk.
In short, as Giulia scrapes away David’s grime to restore his genuine patina, scribe Shear does likewise to those around her and, above all, to the sensitive, regretful artistic magician herself.
Shear’s gifts as an actress pale next to those as writer and monologist, such that we never quite fully believe in Giulia’s loneliness as masked by her pervasive Tugboat Annie bluster. Thesp is excellent in her job interview, struggling to maintain a respectful demeanor in the face of dumb questions. But her opening-scene hostility toward the professor seems over-the-top, while a latenight effort to connect with Max falls flat. Still, most of the time, her task is to listen and react. There Shear excels, quick with a glib one-liner but alert to the renewal possibilities of a casual conversation or sidelong glance. She’s ably abetted by Serafini-Sauli and Shindle, both remarkably effective in establishing what at first seem to be stereotypes but gradually transform into fully defined originals.
Natalija Nogulich’s three roles allot her little influence, while the Gielgudian majesty of Mandell’s professor would be enhanced if thesp cut way back on his straining arm and hand gestures.
Helmer Christopher Ashley does everything possible to animate the proceedings, starting with the all-angles view afforded by rotating scaffolding. Kristin Ellert’s lovely color film footage, projected against the curved museum wall, lends a peek into Firenze and Giulia’s flashback memories (and even more visual cues would be welcome).
Most notable is designer Scott Pask’s brilliant and beautiful approach to the statue itself, presented as a pristine slab of marble from which portions of the magnificent warrior Cubistically protrude: a hand here, a buttock there, arranged as if by some manic Picasso.
This conception does more than reflect the restorer’s narrow perspective (she can only apply cloth or Q-Tip to a few square inches at a time). It also parallels the overall thrust of Shear’s argument, which gently but insistently invites us to see each other anew just as we view the famous figure here: that is, in ways unsullied by first impression, habit or prejudice.