The La Jolla Playhouse’s popular Page to Stage series, which presents readings of works in progress, has an astonishing track record: Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays was a major Broadway hit; Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife won a Pulitzer.
Claudia Shear’s Restoration, commissioned by the playhouse, skipped the Page to Stage step — but needs one. The world premiere’s just six or eight partially drawn characters, and parts of a statue, in search of a play.
Giulia — a “has-been,” an “old never was” — has a talent for cleaning small things. Someone else can sweep floors or wash picture windows. Give her a Q-tip and she makes minutiae sparkle. She restored works of art until a controversy put her on the outs. Now her mentor, Professor Williams, has recommended her for the Holy Grail of restoration: Michelangelo’s Goliath-sized statue of David, which nears its 500th birthday and could use a good scrub.
But does cleaning great art constitute tampering? In effect, there are two Davids: the original, immediately called “Il Gigante” when Michelangelo completed it in 1504; and today’s, which has an ongoing history. It collected stains and grime, and suffered a broken second toe on the left foot, when the ghost of a 16th-century Venetian painter’s model ordered Piero Cannata to hammer “the world’s most famous statue” in 1991.
The debate raises a question: Is great art eternal, or does it, as it goes through time, become mortal, subject to the everyday slings and arrows that plague us all? If so, shouldn’t it show its history? And if eternal, how do you know what the original looked like? What — and this way madness lies, like trying to witness the Big Bang — were the creator’s intentions?
Professor Williams is of the Leave It Alone School — Giulia’s the I Can Restore It. The questions they raise make for lively post-curtain chat but aren’t much to hang a play on.
Restoration moves on a predictable path: Giulia lands the assignment, meets Florentine locals, has Pygmalion moments with “the most beautiful man in the world,” makes unlikely bonds, and grows, allegedly. Along the way characters discuss permanence and change and what the carrera man-child — with those mighty sculptor’s hands — means to them.
An Obie Award-winner for her performance piece Blown Sideways Through Life, Shear has a flair for snappy dialogue and memorable phrasing. One of the problems with Restoration, however: many characters have long monologues, but no matter who speaks, they sound like Shear, especially when discussing art. Director Christopher Ashley and a talented cast can’t particularize them all that much. They could take a lesson from Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which raises similar aesthetic questions in vivid ways (and concludes that beauty is “an always within never”).
Shear makes for an engaging, personable narrator unafraid to express hopes and fears — but so open, in fact, that you sense there’s more beneath the surface. The script has few builds or tensions, however. It simply moves forward, in inevitable stages, with little resistance and few subtexts.
Natalija Nogulich (to be remembered for her Hedda Gabler at the La Jolla Playhouse) plays several characters, her most interesting, a tired cleaning woman. Daniel Serafini-Sauli turns Max, the security guard, into more than just the script’s second banana. As young Daphne, Kate Shindle has the thankless task of being the play’s Bad Cop, eventually redeemed.
The treat is octogenarian, and theater legend, Alan Mandell (director of Beckett, star of Shortbus and Trying, cofounder of the San Quentin Drama Workshop). He makes Professor Williams a gadfly Gielgud, wise beyond his years, impish beyond measure.
The set was bound to annoy no matter what the design. Giulia needs something to clean. But you can’t put a replica of the 17-foot statue onstage. It would steal focus for each of the show’s 95 minutes (plus, there’s always something wrong with reproductions of the David; they resemble watching someone — anyone — trying to dance like Michael Jackson). Designer Scott Pask devised a monolith with parts of the statue — a giant foot here, Dave’s genitalia there — protruding. One sees the exact sizes of each section. But the image, overall, feels incomplete, like the play.
FIELD NOTES: The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said, famously, “ars longa, vita brevis” — “art is long, life is short.” To counter the immortality school, my brother once fashioned a madhouse bas-relief. He used a fickle medium — can’t recall what — that would continue to crack indefinitely. He entitled it, quoting JFK, “and we are all mortal.”