It’s off with the statues’ heads once again for Amy Freed, as the author of “Freedomland” and “The Beard of Avon” finds another ready vehicle for literary/social parody in the decadent ancient Rome of “You, Nero.” This uneven but entertaining burlesque might well have been conceived as a showcase for Danny Scheie, who stole the show as Lord Foppington in Freed’s “Restoration Comedy.” An able cast and Sharon Ott’s Berkeley Rep production (retooled since January’s South Coast Rep premiere) eke considerable hilarity from a play whose occasional flat jokes can be tweaked before future stagings.Mid-1st century A.D. is not a good time to be a dramatist. The Emperor Nero has outlawed tragedies, and the public in any case now prefers the real gruesome spectacle of his Circus Maximus. But then it’s not a particularly good time to be any kind of Roman, since Nero’s love of bloodsport, unpredictable temper and flippant attitude toward executions leave everyone, from slave to spouse, at risk. Thus colleagues urge Scribonious (Jeff McCarthy) to flee when he receives a surprise summons to the palace. But this less-than-esteemed playwright is desperate and/or foolish enough to go willingly. He’s rewarded by discovering Nero (Scheie) an unlikely personal fan who considers himself above all a lover of the arts, or “Emperorsaurio.” Nero wants a custom bio-drama to shine flattering light on his accomplishments. Of course, failure to please could prove fatal. But like any out-of-work scribe handed a fat commission, Scribonious is suddenly bursting with ideas for the task at hand. That task gets more complicated by the moment, however. Both Nero’s domineering, incestuously over attentive mother Agrippina (Lori Larsen) and his scheming current mistress Poppaea (Susannah Schulman) insist the scribe sculpt his play to serve their agendas, too. Meanwhile erstwhile palace tutors Burrus (Mike McShane) and Seneca (Richard Doyle) urge Scribonious to write a work whose saintly portrait will trick Nero into believing his own hype, hopefully turning a “murdering maniac” into a wise and benevolent ruler. Directed by one-time Berkeley Rep a.d. Ott, Freed’s first act provides numerous laughs, targeting the conventions and pretensions of legit theater today as much as fall-of-the-Roman Empire cliches. But it also hits notes by turns too broad or too camp. (This is one of the gayer shows in recent memory written by a heterosexual woman.) The best lines are often absurdist throwaways (“Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be back in Pompeii helping Mother re-grout the mosaics,” Poppaea sighs); sometimes, however, Freed follows good lines with redundant ones explaining the joke we already got. After intermission things kick into a more consistent high gear, starting with a play-within-the-play portraying in earnest TV-movie terms the formative travails of Agrippina and Young Nero (an inspired Kasey Mahaffy). Realizing he’s not a monster but a “victim of the system” seems to do the Emperor good, albeit briefly. His untamable narcissism and immorality find ultimate expression in a Vegas-y revue whose satire of “American Idol” celebrity-wannabe culture is funny if a tad pat by now. Scheie can levy on any given phrase the bone-crushing venom of Bette Davis at her 1960s gorgon peak while scarcely lifting a finger (let alone requiring drag). He manages the impressive feat of giving a performance that’s equal parts excess and exactitude. Seldom offstage, McCarthy’s Scribonious more than holds his own with an appealing mix of indignance, terror and show-biz neuroses. Too busy with business to benefit from a heavy physical production, Ott’s fast-paced staging gets clever, nimble design contribs from all involved.
Berkeley Rep, Berkeley, Calif.; 401 seats; $71 top
A Berkeley Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Amy Freed. Directed by Sharon Ott.
Set, Erik Flatmo; costumes, Paloma H. Young; lighting, Peter Maradudin; original music and sound, Stephen LeGrand, Eric Drew Feldman; production stage manager, Amy Potozkin. Opened, reviewed May 20, 2009. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
With: Jeff McCarthy, Mike McShane, Kasey Mahaffy, Richard Doyle, Danny Scheie, Lori Larsen, Susannah Schulman, Donnell Hill, Maggie Mason, Sarah Moser.