Those who view “American Idol” and ultra-violent videogame “Manhunt 2″ as harbingers of Western civilization’s imminent demise will find a kindred spirit in Amy Freed’s “You, Nero.” Beneath its camp-burlesque veneer lurks mournful inquiry into modern art’s mob pandering and complicity with official corruption. The highly anticipated South Coast Rep commission is fitfully funny, but Sharon Ott’s production lacks a center to invest the farce with the intended thematic resonance.In Freed’s morose, atrophied ancient Rome, passionate art is banned or just snubbed. Showbiz is restricted to Caesar’s Palace — the demented domain of Nero (Danny Scheie), ruthlessly partaking of sensual pleasures as the empire crumbles. Theater is particularly irrelevant now, with audiences enduring desultory circuses of lions feasting on Christians. Even street mimes have fled to the hills to practice their profession covertly. But can art, victim of the rampant civic imbecility, affect its own cure? Inspired by a commission to dramatize Nero’s life story for a little imperial image-polishing, Scribonius (John Vickery) insinuates himself into palace intrigues to risk exploitation by the feral royal retinue. Surely his artistic prowess can open the mad emperor’s eyes, restoring decency and balance to the body politic. Freed recognizes that it’s more likely theater will reinforce social attitudes than change them, but she makes hay with the topsy-turvy consequences as Scribonius toys with different styles. A sensitive kitchen-sink family scene out of Clifford Odets inspires Nero to do away with his Gorgon-like mom, Agrippina (a deliciously wicked Lori Larsen). A re-creation of Greek tragic Furies just brings out the ruler’s own thesping and scribing skills. Sophocles’ indictment of Oedipus, he screeches, is “like shooting fish in a barrel. How about making the case for him!” Ott has assembled a first-rate freak show for the imperial court on the order of the late, lamented Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company. Whether scampering in delighted appreciation of an actor’s reading (or physique), or lounging louche in leopard-skin briefs, Scheie is a perfect spoiled baby wielding a bloodied broadsword instead of a rattle. A strong hint of Stalin and Hitler comes through in his ability to turn on a dime from flattery to ferocity. As his scheming, oversexed mistress Poppaea, the superb Caralyn Kozlowski — aided by Paloma Young’s diaphanous costumes — can’t stand up without a lewd hitch in her gitalong sure to turn every man in the vicinity into stone. Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. are droll (if stock) eunuchs, and Kasey Mahaffy brings modern lunacy to a variety of put-upon roles. Still, these grotesques can only appall if we believe in their inherent evil, and this production never leads us to feel the stakes underlying the homicidal vaudeville. Vickery’s lack of farcical grace and variety is problematic enough, like a production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” whose Pseudolus is AWOL. But his olde-tyme tragedian mode denudes the proceedings of impact. As our mirror, Scribonius must level with us to put the onstage capers in terrifying context. Yet where the play demands true, escalating dread, Vickery provides blowhard oratory. Not once are we forced to internalize the offstage horrors of which these prissy, campy vipers are guilty. Others are certainly culpable — helmer Ott, of course — and Doyle and Landon waste opportunities to invest concerned senators with true gravitas. But Scribonius shoulders most of the words and hence most of the burden. When Scheie wraps a sinuous arm around Vickery to wheedle, “What are you so afraid of?,” thesp responds as he does throughout: with befuddlement, exasperation and weariness but not a trace of fear. Even the pyrotechnic finale, in which Nero figuratively and literally becomes a rock star setting Rome afire, sputters despite Peter Maradudin’s ingenious lighting effects merging the modern arena with the Colosseum of antiquity. Sumptuous stagecraft notwithstanding, the absence of genuine feeling robs “You, Nero” of the pity and terror to which Freed would drive it. It all becomes trivial — amusing on the level of a fraternity skit, occasionally tiresome and never chilling.
Julianne Argyros Stage; 236 seats; $64 top
A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts by Amy Freed. Directed by Sharon Ott.
Sets, Erik Flatmo; costumes, Paloma H. Young; lighting, Peter Maradudin; original music and sound design, Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman; stage manager, Julie Haber. Opened Jan. 9, 2009. Reviewed Jan. 10. Runs through Jan. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
Scribonius - John Vickery Nero - Danny Scheie Poppaea - Caralyn Kozlowski Agrippina - Lori Larsen Batheticus/Beppo/ Burrus - Hal Landon Jr. Zippo/Seneca/ Patheticus - Richard Doyle Manulius/Fabiolo/Octavia's Ghost/ Young Nero - Kasey Mahaffy
With: Angelle Buffet, Christopher Crawford, Marisa Hampton.