Claudia Shear’s surprisingly solid art drama “Restoration” shows off the writer’s knack for clean, smart characterization — a quality that takes the play to unexpected places. Story follows irascible art scholar Giulia (Shear) as she begins a torrid relationship with the most beautiful man in the world: Michelangelo’s “David,” which she’s hired to restore. Naturalistic script’s resolution is perhaps a touch pat but realized so adroitly that the play is virtually guaranteed a long life in the regions and college theaters.
Shear is good as Giulia, and Jonathan Cake (occasionally stumbling out of an Italian accent into his native British) is a scream as the louche security guard who flirts with her day in and day out. But the biggest surprise is Tina Benko, wonderful as the museum’s type-A publicist, Daphne. When she first appears, Daphne is totally unimpressed with our heroine, setting her against Giulia and the audience. As the play progresses, though, we learn some unpleasant things about Giulia — she prefers to sleep with married men, for example — and catch glimpses of an embattled Daphne valiantly juggling her family life and her job.
The play’s conflict, gratifyingly, isn’t between the cranky, misunderstood artist and the callous system (who needs to see that at a nonprofit theater?), but between the artist and herself. “I’m falling out of the world,” Giulia confesses at one point — her greatest passion is lovingly restoring the statue of a gorgeous man, which is a pretty solitary pursuit.
In the end, the play’s conclusions are as valuable as they are uncomfortable: Pretty people feel hated, too. Being right doesn’t make you good. Being charming doesn’t make you good, either. Everybody gets lonely.
Obvious? Perhaps, but hard to illustrate dramatically. Shear’s success at that task is one of the play’s real pleasures.
Helmer Christopher Ashley makes a few grating choices — in one pivotal scene, he has Cake recount a traumatic experience to Giulia as though he were reliving it, which is of course the exact opposite of what anybody dredging up an unpleasant memory would do. But credit where credit is due: All of Ashley’s performers are gratifyingly present with one another, and the whole production moves as smoothly as Scott Pask’s turntable set, which neatly solves the problem of putting the gigantic “David” on stage by breaking it down into cubist-looking fragments on a revolving column smack in the middle of the action.
Kristin Ellert’s video projections nicely re-create the Accademia Gallery (where the statue resides); Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design is effective but a little music-heavy. David C. Woolard’s costumes are particularly good.