Using the Roman Empire’s decadent decline as an allegory for our own nation’s current excesses is an OK if obvious idea that gets OK if obvious treatment in Steven Sater’s new play. Awkwardly titled “Nero (Another Golden Rome)” — it was billed solely by the parenthetical in advance publicity — this strenuous effort is equal parts burlesque, pastiche, tragedy, historical critique and musical, though seldom quite enough of anything in particular. Kickoff for the Magic’s annual “Hot House” mini-season of world-premiere plays is never entirely uninteresting, but it’s never terribly involving, either.
Melopomene Katakalos’ fragmentary set suggests an in-construction circus environment, and that concept unfortunately carries over to the evening’s overall impact; its self-consciously clever, across-the-map meta-theater “acts” haven’t yet cohered into a unified spectacle.
Nero (Drew Hirshfield) is the callow, bratty apple of ambitious mother Agrippina’s (Catherine Smitko) eye. She poisons his adopted father, clearing the path so Nero can become the new reigning Caesar — though this means bypassing the “overlooked, natural heir” Brittanicus (Joe Mandragona), who eventually requires poisoning, too.
It is Sater’s conceit that our anti-hero wants to be “a star,” and that all politics is theater — ideas perhaps more relevant than ever given the presence of what some consider another dangerous “puppet king” in the White House. Still, as a guiding creative thesis, such notions are pretty tapped out by now, and Sater has created a work neither intellectually deep nor savagely comic enough to give them needed new life.
Thus there’s little shock value, let alone the pathos Beth F. Milles’ production tries to evoke, in power-mad Nero’s eventual turning on his trusted advisers (David Cramer as philosopher Seneca, Andrew Hurteau as General Burrus), then on incestuously possessive, controlling Mommie Dearest. He lets the citizens suffer, blames the Christians and carries on vainglorious theatrics when not indulging in Caligula-esque frolics with slave boys, vestal virgins and gladiator hunks.
Yet the pocket-cabaret-cum-play’s naughtiness is tepid, just as its limning of limitless power and escalating madness lacks real danger: This Nero’s petulant triviality dominates.
Sater quotes and/or name-checks everyone from Sappho to Chaucer to Beaudelaire to Genet, but these samplings feel as gratuitously show-offy as the moments when performers drift into farcical Italian, French and Cockney accents.
Repeated portentous references are made to “Nero’s hell, Nero’s darkness, Nero’s love.” At the fiddling finale, he cries, “Troy is burning my love.” But such weighty emotional states are only indicated, not remotely conveyed — outside Duncan Sheik’s pre-recorded music, that is. Typically plaintive and attractive, Sheik’s instrumental passages and songs (variably served by the actors’ vocals and Sater’s lyrics) provide a melancholy counterpoint that tends to clash against more than complement the show as a whole.
Bolder visual packaging might have passed off “Nero” as something more avant-garde than it is, though design contributors do well enough on a limited budget in the smallish Magic space.
To her credit, Milles lends the evening brisk pacing and as much stylistic consistency as possible. The multiply cast (with the exception of Hirshfield, who’s just adequate) actors are game, with Smitko eerily resembling Angela Lansbury’s “Manchurian Candidate” stage-mother ogress in both looks and fearsome will.