With “Cellini,” John Patrick Shanley continues a minor trend of accomplished playwrights shooting for the moon and belly-flopping back to earth. Craig Lucas and Wendy Wasserstein have previously offered up ambitious but seriously flawed new plays Off Broadway this season, but there’s something unnervingly apt about Shanley’s misfire: The play glorifies the struggle of the artist to expand the limits of his artistry, to risk personal immolation in the pursuit of creative achievement.
Unfortunately, Shanley’s risk-taking has not paid off as successfully as that of his subject, the 16th century Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. As visitors to Florence can plainly see, Cellini’s statue of Perseus, whose creation is the major preoccupation of Shanley’s bio-drama, is a lasting masterpiece. Shanley’s play, by contrast, is merely an ambitious but exasperating failure, a play divided against itself, to borrow a metaphor Shanley himself employs to describe his subject.
In recent interviews, the playwright has described the long gestation of “Cellini” and his insecurities about his ability to master its demands. This uncertainty seems to be reflected in the play’s contradictory nature: Much of it is an earnest and florid hymn to the wild and woolly grandeur of the creative genius, but the playwright keeps snarkily undercutting its seriousness with self-conscious humor, as if apologizing to us for his inability to honestly achieve the play’s greater ambitions.
This self-divided tone is set from the opening moments, when Cellini’s young assistant addresses us in a pizza-joint Italian accent to introduce his master. “I hope I am not talking too loud,” he says. “I raise my voice because it is 1558 and you are 453 years away! Welcome to Florence!”
The Florence to which we are welcomed is nicely epitomized in Adrianne Lobel’s set, the inside of a cupola in the Florentine style. The play begins with Cellini, played with woozy eccentricity by Reg Rogers, dictating his famous memoirs to this lackey and recalling what he calls the “central scene,” his creation of the Perseus at the behest of the Duke of Florence. From here it zigzags somewhat confusingly back to Rome and Paris, where Cellini was previously employed, before returning to Florence for a longer second act that culminates in the casting of the Perseus.
Artists of the era were the prized pawns of ruling powers, but Cellini chafes at this humiliation, and is constantly biting the hands that feed him. When his Roman patron, Pope Clement, is succeeded by the less affectionate Paolo, Cellini snubs him: “Who are you? You are just one despot in a world of kings. I will work for you or I will work for someone else. France is full of the desire for my service.” Despotism has its advantages, of course, and Cellini is promptly thrown in prison.
The hot-tempered fellow is no more easygoing when it comes to the baser passions. We see him sparring with his impetuous Parisian lover and model Caterina (Jennifer Roszell, avec silly French accent), in dialogue riddled with hyperbole and exclamation points. He also gets in hot water over a comely young Florentine boy he’s both sculpting and lusting after. Reference is made to two murders he’s committed, of a constable and a goldsmith. The goldsmith’s crime was suggesting that he and Cellini were in the same line of work.
Indeed, Cellini was the prototypical romantic artist down to his fingertips, and it’s easy to see why Shanley, like many other artists, was drawn to him (it helps that he was the rare artist of the period to set his colorful story down in his own words). But the depiction of such larger-than-life figures is always problematic. When you add an Italian accent to Cellini’s feisty diatribes and overweening paeans to his divine gift (“There is a chamber in my heart wherein God Himself has set a tiny fire. It is my determination that that combustion will consume me”), the histrionic factor goes right through the roof.
In our cooler culture, it is hard to take seriously such breast-beating declarations of pride and passion. Shanley is certainly aware of this, and the play’s pronounced self-consciousness is a way of acknowledging that the playwright is at least aware of its tendency toward overripeness. After describing, with much bombast, the gorgeous gold salt cellar that is one of his most famous achievements, Cellini concludes by reminding us, “Although I am dead, and all the kings of France are dead and gone from the face of the earth, this salt cellar still sits, in a magnificent room devoted to great art! In Vienna. Go there.” But ultimately Shanley can’t master the difficult — maybe impossible — task of both honoring Cellini’s earnest righteousness and sending it up.
The playwright has staged the work with competence, but another hand might have suggested streamlining the plot and eliminating some of its excesses. “Cellini” does not avoid the cluttered feeling endemic to fact-based dramas; there are too many intrigues being intrigued here, and the central theme, of the artist triumphing against enemies both within and without, is somewhat hazily sketched amid the play’s sprawl. In various roles, Shanley’s supporting cast is adequate, but only occasionally something more.
As Cellini excoriates the philistines who are in control of his destiny, it’s hard not to hear the submerged voice of the playwright himself, who expertly skewered the power structures of Hollywood, where he has often toiled, in his play “Four Dogs and a Bone.” But that play was written from the gut, from direct observation. Dealing with similar themes here — the struggle of the artist in a world that degrades and devalues him — Shanley is trying to merge his voice with that of his subject, and the result is odd and unconvincing. Cellini’s grandiloquent Italian is probably not a language Shanley will ever be fluent in.