A Naked Girl On The Appian Way

If only playwrights could be counted on to be as dependable as set designers in the art of theatrical construction. It’s impossible to think back to any setting created by designer John Lee Beatty that didn’t complement or rival the artistry of the play it framed. In the case of "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" by the otherwise formidably intelligent Richard Greenberg, one could easily spend the first 15 minutes or so of his latest play by gainfully counting the number of glass windows that reach several stories high in a pretentious home in the Hamptons. Unfortunately this architectural delight doesn’t have the capability to cast light on a comedy that for all its horseplay and glib talk remains a pretty dull and dim-witted affair. During the so-called exposition, there is a lot of chatter that goes nowhere and bits of business that add up to nothing of consequence. That is until everything that Greenberg can think up in the way of dysfunctional, disruptive, and disapproving family behavior comes home to roost.

Bess Lapin (Jill Clayburgh), a cookbook author, is busily chopping up 49 ingredients for a salad, while her asthmatic husband Jeffrey (Richard Thomas), also an author currently committed to writing something about the fusion of art and business, is running around like a chicken without a head looking for his notes and his inhaler. This goes on for far too long and without either one of them saying anything that suggests anything remotely connected to honest or real human communication. Something better happen soon in a play that is only 100 minutes long, and it mercifully does with the arrival of their three grown children. The groundwork is thus set for a family comedy of incest, but not about incest, about writers, but not about writers, about infidelity, but not about infidelity, about promiscuity, but not about promiscuity, about being gay, and not being gay, about preparing dinner, and not serving dinner.

The Lapins, as the audience is soon to discover, fulfilled their progressive upper-class social values by adopting three children, each of whom reflects a different hue of the human species. Having grown up together since infancy, they are now in their mid-20s and ready for love or something like that. The catch is that the sophisticated daughter, Juliet (Kelechi Watson), a sepia-toned Dominican, has just returned from 17 months abroad with her brother, the relentlessly jovial blonde Teutonic Thad (Matthew Morrison). Their announcement that they intend to marry upsets Bess and Jeffrey only to the point where they can toss off a few disaffecting one-liners amid a shallow argument as to its not being acceptable. Of course, Jeffrey has an asthmatic attack. But he appears to be less upset than their other son, an Asian, the notably dour bi-sexual, Bill (James Yaegashi), a Harvard graduate with a serious inferiority complex. Despite earning a masters degree in library science, Bill evidently has yet to be motivated and has remained a stick-in-the-mud.

Bill’s bi-sexuality is played for laughs, as he lets it be known how he feels abandoned by his sister, but more so by his brother, who he knows has been sexually adventurous with both sexes. "Why am I never chosen," is Bill’s lament as he finds himself the outcast in a family whose sexual cavorting isn’t limited to the children. Bess’s affair with neighbor Elaine (Leslie Ayvasian) surfaces, as gingerly exposed by Elaine’s outspoken, foul-mouthed mother, Sadie (Ann Guilbert).

It’s great to see the ingratiating Clayburgh flood the stage with warmth, despite the empty, flippant dialogue that she has to speak. Let’s hope that this experience only prompts her to consider another play, possibly even by Greenberg, in his more dramatically persuasive mode. In the meantime we can look forward to her playing the role of the mother in the upcoming Broadway revival of "Barefoot in the Park." The role of Jeffrey isn’t much of a challenge for Thomas, who recently impressed with chilling performances in "Democracy" and "The Stendhal Syndrome." But we can be grateful that Greenberg, at least, didn’t make Jeffrey a closet transvestite.

Morrison appears to be having the most fun in his role as the hyperkinetic Thad, leaping about and grappling with his siblings with carefree abandon. Then there is the comforting, mostly stunned look that Watson has on her face, as Juliet, when in the company of the others. That’s one honest reaction.

It is good that Yaegashi, who appeared in Greenberg’s "Take Me Out," is showing us how good he looks with his clothes on, and how instinctive is his flair for deadpan humor in the light of Bill’s perpetual glumness. Guilbert and Ayvasian portray the mother and daughter-in-law from hell with aplomb.

Once everyone’s soiled laundry has been air-fluffed, there isn’t much room left for a decisive climactic moment or a satisfying denouement. The only motivation for any one of these characters is to glibly pontificate on the awesomely uninteresting issues of the others. One gets the feeling that Greenberg’s generally unfailing ability to create a good yarn, as with the Tony award-winner "Take Me Out, "The Last Three Days of Rain," and "The Dazzle," among others, apparently doesn’t extend to light comedy.

As for the significance of the play’s title, it is explained without its having much to do with anything. Under Doug Hughes’ indulgent direction, this is one naked girl that should be sent as quickly as possible on her Appian way.

A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, Roundabout at American

Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. 212-719-1300.

Julius Caesar

There is a loud and bloody production of "Julius Caesar," under the direction of Brian B. Crowe, at the New Jersey Shakespeare Theater. For the most part, it provides more than you bargained for, and that’s good. Don’t look for psychological subtleties in the performances, but the staging of this historical play is fully committed to wallowing in its more gory aspects even as it remains a topical and trenchant drama of political chicanery. Considering Shakespeare’s marked restraint with florid language in "Julius Caesar," and the wondrous simplicity with which his characters are committed to this historically critical time, this ostensibly stylish oratory still manages to make some almost impossible demands upon a director and his company of actors. Not the least of which is to insure that the extensive speechifying sounds as if it has been motivated.

Besides Crowe’s penchant for exploiting the violence in the play for all its worth, he has also apparently encouraged his actors to downplay the pretentious resonance of the speeches.

This works up to a point. But it isn’t until nearly the end of the first half that the play is truly released from its Corinthian-like archness and a degree of dullness, save for Caesar’s brutal murder. With the arrival of Gregory Derelian as the stirring warrior and orator, Marc Antony, we perceive a man, though hardly patrician in his countenance, make his famous rhetoric sound both serviceable and poetic. If the bane of "Julius Caesar" is its mostly marbleized humanity, it remains for each actor to fuse the dictates of oration with the imagination of life. Except in the case of Derelian, who is as stirringly convincing in speech as he is mindful of his ability as "a shrewd contriver," many in the company appear to be working hard and valiantly not to be submerged by the tide of rhetorical dialogue.

But Julius Caesar is less about Antony than it is about the title character (played with formidable arrogance by William Metzo), whose temptation it was to become emperor. As the play’s most important character, Marcus Brutus, that most exemplary idealist and one of the leading conspirators who plot to thwart Caesar, Robert Cuccioli is, at best, intensely sincere. He does rise above that level in the finely-honed famous quarrel scene in the battlefield tent with Richard Topol, as Cassius. Topol, who convincingly affects "that lean and hungry look" certainly acted with a dangerous elan, as he also helped raise the highly disciplined dialogue to a respectable degree of emotional power. The great height of the podium from which Brutus and Antony give their famous eulogies also adds to their effectiveness.

One has to admire, however, an actor like Leon Addison Brown, who, as Casca, that "sour" aristocrat and co-conspirator, spoke his lines as if they really meant something. Very much a masculine play, the only peripherally important women’s roles of Calpurnia and Portia are played respectively by a peripheral Jessica Ires Morris and a more notably impassioned Roxana Hope. Shakespeare Theater veteran Geddeth Smith can always be counted on to raise the level of veracity and does in his two roles, Senator Cicero and Cinna the Poet.

Crowe’s direction seems to take its greatest risk by emphasizing the violence of the mob and protracting the graphically depicted slayings. At the performance I caught, there were audible gasps from the audience. However, Crowe also prompted his soldiers to go into battle with a purposefulness that too often resembled staginess.

Set designer Harry Feiner’s movable columns and a stunningly painted mosaic floor (whose beauty, unfortunately, can only be seen from the balcony) and costumer C. David Russell’s strange approximation of classical attire make their statements, as do the masks that cover the faces of the citizens of Rome. It was also comforting to know that the plebeians of ancient Rome had umbrellas (undoubtedly purchased in Cherbourg) to use in a downpour. There is a well-taken advisory for the audience not to put their feet in the aisles. You wouldn’t want to trip anyone on the way to an assassination. Simon Saltzman

Julius Caesar," through November 13, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. $37 to $41. 973-408-5600 or www.ShakespeareNJ.org.

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