Brush With Fame

Benvenuto Cellini was not only a great goldsmith and distinguished sculptor but also a fine enough writer for Goethe to have translated his famous autobiography, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, into German. That work has now inspired Cellini, a play on which John Patrick Shanley labored for years. Though it would have been better as a movie (Shanley also writes screenplays, e.g., Moonstruck), the result is not boring, merely a letdown. This Shanley Cellini makes me yearn for what a Fellini Cellini might have been.

The author himself, as he usually does, directed. Immediately bothersome was that old Hollywood error of having the characters speak with heavy Italian – or, at the court of Francis I, heavy French – accents instead of in unaccented English and not struggling with usually too thick, too inconsistent, or too inept – and illogical – pronunciations. Even when Reg Rogers, as Cellini, manages a decent and consistent Italian accent, it has, for our ears, entirely wrong connotations.

A greater problem is how to convey a life as full, varied, and adventurous – as well as often on the wrong side of the law – as Cellini’s within the limited scope of a play. The more so if the protagonist is a controversial artist and you wish to present his artistic struggles. Shanley, who is of partly Italian descent, has often attacked Italo-American subjects, but that is not the same as the Italian Renaissance.

Shanley, moreover, wants to write both a fairly straightforward, realistic comedy-drama and a hip, stylized, anti-naturalistic entertainment with absurdist choruses, dead men summoned back to life, lots of playing up to the audience – a tricky combination. And, as you might expect, no simple slavish adherence to the published Life but free authorial invention.

The strategy was to concentrate on two aspects of Cellini’s life: the relationship of the artist with his divers and diverse patrons, and his relation with his life model and mistress, the Frenchwoman Caterina. All this is either sketchily (Caterina) or amply (the patrons) present in the Life, but even a cursory comparison reveals that most of the good stuff is straight Cellini, to which Shanley’s expansion adds scant insight and insufficient dramatization. For example, he does not explore Benvenuto’s catching Caterina in flagrante with his apprentice, or Caterina and her mother’s lawsuit against Cellini for alleged sodomy. We know from the Life that he beat the “vicious whore” and “miserable baggage,” as he calls her, but there is nothing in the book about her wanting to be beaten by him. Shanley invents and toys with an S&M relationship but does not develop it.

He does more with Benvenuto’s travails with his four main patrons: the benevolent Pope Clement VII, the whimsical French king Francis I, the mean-spirited Pope Paolo III, and the indecisive Duke Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence, though neither of the play’s two master themes is deeply enough probed and they don’t significantly interact.

Even so, this is not a dull evening, but it could use better acting. Reg Rogers is a satisfactory but not memorable Cellini. Richard Russell Ramos is fine as Pope Paolo but too piddling as the French king. The fetching Jennifer Roszell, as Caterina, is spirited but hasn’t much to work with. And Daniel Oreskes, as the Duke of Florence, is common and dismal.

Adrianne Lobel’s set (but for a strangely tilted door), Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, and particularly Brian Nason’s lighting are thoroughly workmanlike, and the author’s direction, especially in the casting of the Perseus statue, is unexceptionable. But even as Shanley’s language and that of J. Addington Symonds’s 1888 translation of the Life clash here, so do the cinquecento and contemporary sensibilities.

The first Encores! presentation under the new artistic directorship of Jack Viertel, A Connecticut Yankee (1927, revised 1943), was a trifle disappointing. Based on Mark Twain’s satirical novel but greatly attenuated by Herbert Fields’s book, it has a Rodgers & Hart score, good but not their best. Three numbers stand out and are duly – or, rather, unduly – reprised. The remaining songs contribute only modestly.

The real problem, however, is the plot. The eponymous Yankee, Martin Barrett, is hit over the head with a champagne bottle by his unloved bride-to-be, Fay Morgan, when she catches his true love, Alice Carter, in his lap. This propels him into Camelot, where his prospective father-in-law becomes King Arthur, Alice becomes Alisande (or Sandy), Fay Morgan is transformed into Morgan Le Fay, and so on. Funny things befall him and continue when he returns to Hartford.

The usually skillful David Ives was unable to make the plot perspicuous in this semi-staged version. Of course, minimal costumes and scenery inevitably forfeit not only comic stage effects but also basic clarity. To be sure, Lorenz Hart’s lyrics feature consistently delightful rhymes; much of the humor depends on the linguistic dislocations, as in “Thou Swell.” Wordplay – some good, some not – is everywhere. Example: “She has called him a succor.” “A sucker?!” Again: “As for marriage, it is the opium of the couple.” Whoever is responsible for at least a dozen putative gags involving the word withal should, with all due respect, have been restrained.

The company is amiable enough. Christine Ebersole, atypically cast as Morgan Le Fay, couldn’t have been more fey, and so, if I may rhyme, was Mark Lotito as Sir Kay. Judith Blazer and Henry Gibson (Sandy, Arthur) proved dependable as always, with Steven Sutcliffe a passable Martin. The best work came from the two dancers, Seán Martin Hingston and Nancy Lemenager, who, granted, had the best opportunities. Rob Fisher and the orchestra dazzled with Don Walker’s glorious orchestrations.

Susan H. Schulman, who directed (uninspiredly), and Rob Ashford, who choreographed (quite nicely), performed similarly and simultaneously in the space below for Time and Again, another time-tripping musical, which must have involved considerable stair-tripping. They did better upstairs than down.

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley; starring Reg Rogers. At Second Stage Theater.
A Connecticut Yankee
Encores! presentation of the Rodgers and Hart musical at City Center.

Brush With Fame