Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen, two of the funniest people on the face of the earth, play street cleaners tasked with carting away the dead after the civil wars that brought down the Roman Empire. Well, a job’s a job, and Gary (Lane) and Janice (Nielsen) go about their disgusting work without complaint. “Long story short — most everybody dies,” Gary sums up the war. But that doesn’t stop these inspired clowns from sharing their views on the empire, the wars, the ruling classes, and the correct drape (Right side? Left side?) of the penises of the dead soldiers being stacked up for burial.
Scribe Taylor Mac (who also answers to the gender pronoun “judy”) has set this satirical farce in the mid-late period of the Roman Empire, when Western civilization was tottering after years of war. As its sub-title indicates, the story picks up after “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s first and bloodiest tragedy. In one delicious aside, Gary sums up that Renaissance revenge plot, a veritable cornucopia of incest, mutilations and cannibalism.
First, a word about those dead soldiers and their floppy penises. According to a stage direction, “there are at least a thousand corpses on the stage.” Well, not hardly. Santo Loquasto (set) and Ann Roth (costumes) conspired on these ghastly funny artistic installations of stuffed dummies, and there’s enough of them to make the scribe’s point that nobody looks heroic when they’re dead. Liberally splashed with stage blood, these faceless senators, tribunes, philosophers and foot soldiers are stacked in egalitarian mounds, awaiting the street cleaners to haul them away in death carts for burial.
The political satire is pretty much spelled out. “It’s a hell on earth out there and only getting worse,” says Janice. “What with the autocracy turned to a democracy, turning back to an autocracy as we speak.” She’s referring to the bloody mess that Titus made of Rome, but Mac wouldn’t mind if we were reminded of other bloody messes closer to home.
Judy’s point, of course, is that narcissistic despots never think of the messy aftermath of their senseless wars. As Janice reminds us, “someone had to collate the duties, marshal the maids, assemble the scrubbers” and mop up the blood. Disgusting though it is, this is honest work and both Janice and Gary take some pride in their work, although Gary is clearly more sensitive. At one point, this sad clown breaks down in tears. When asked what he’s weeping for, his answer is simple and sad: “The state of the world.”
The state of the world, Mac makes clear, is primary material for clowns, who are in a unique position to comment on the world they live in. “It was the same old same,” says Gary. “Rich folk want power, revenge, and center stage, and will devour the little folk like me along the way.”
Lane’s open face and elastic expressions lend themselves to this sad-sack clown, who can’t help himself from mourning the state of the world while suffering from the indignities of being a clown. The job of a clown is to make people laugh, while “a fool’s ambition is to save the world.” With practice and luck, Gary hopes to advance to the profession of Fool and his ambition lends sweetness to his silliness.
“Me clowning days are done,” he declares. “I got a quest to raise me status, climb up top the ladder.” Lane has a special gift for beatific expression, and the affection he puts into his portrayal of Gary makes him look angelic.
But this is low comedy, so expect plenty of fart jokes and penis wagging and doubles entendre interlaced with the sweet humanity and higher-toned political satire. When Janice instructs Gary on how to clean the corpses for burial, she doesn’t hesitate to poke and prod for gas and to toss intestines around for fun. George C. Wolfe directed this play, so nobody misses a trick with the physical comedy. If poking and prodding and tossing and wagging are called for, it will be done.
Julie White (a Tony winner for “The Little Dog Laughed”) plays Carol, a midwife who holds her head high because her throat’s been cut. (If that doesn’t strike you as funny, then this isn’t your kind of play.) In one of those heroic theatrical saves, White stepped in when Andrea Martin was injured in rehearsal, and she’s more than up for this ridiculous role. Costumer Ann Roth has designed her a pretty floaty gown and an outlandish towering hairdo to pass her off as a Roman matron, but underneath the glitter is another gifted clown. (Speaking of which … Bill Irwin tutored the actors in the fine art of clowning.)
Even when the comedy is at its blackest, Mac can’t resist a bit of social criticism. In the middle of an especially gross autopsy, Janice explains why she keeps the corpses of women and children discreetly covered, while fully displaying the naked men. “Being that we’ve never had a female Emperor, one might conclude the men are a little more responsible,” she reasons. “So forgive me if I don’t treat the blokes with me total sensitivity.”
Janice is the revolutionary in the house, and Nielsen goes for broke with the role. From initially simply lording her status over Gary, she turns into a bit of a tyrant, ordering him around like a bully, no longer a friend. And once she discovers the golden spoils of war in Titus’s mansion, she allows herself to become greedy. Power corrupts, they say, and so does gold.
There’s no shortage of art and craft in this offbeat show; but there’s also a limit to how much goofiness a comedy can support, and Mac may have gone over his limit. The jokes start to feel lame and the crude burlesque routines seem a bit cruel. Is this what happens to clowns when they overreach and do a pratfall? Maybe so. In which case, Mac might do a little bloodletting on his dramatic corpus.