by Sam Juliano
Michelangelo’s David is the unlikely centerpiece of a surprisingly mirthful stage work, Restoration, written by Cynthia Shear, who also plays the lead: an Italian-born, American bred art restorer who lands the job of a lifetime scrubbbing down the famed sculpture. Housed at the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence, the 17 foot plaster obelisk is replicated on stage sitting beneath a covering and scaffolding that recalls Mario Caveradossi’s art studio in Tosca, complete with Renaissance murals and ornate archways. But Ms. Shear is more interested in the comic possibilities in this seemingly austere project which suggests at the very least that a woman can rejuvenate her life and vocational fortune by traveling abroad.
After an interview, in which “Giulia” admits to being “weird, aggressive and picky” as well as having experienced some “success” as a teacher of art history and as a “restorer of rich people’s frames” she catches the big break with the help of one of her former professor, (played here by veteran Alan Mandel in a scene-stealing John Gielgud-styled turn as a proud snob) who refuses to allow one of his former students to be forever doomed to inactivity, wants her to open up more, advising her drily that “self-pity is the personality equivalent of chewing with your mouth open” in one of the play’s best lines. Giulia admits it is surely “her last chance.”
Predictably, she is greeted in Florence (where she lived as a child) by Italians who both resent her hiring and are alienated by her prickly demeanor. These include security guard, Max, played wonderfully by a flirtatious, macho Jonathan Cake who evinces a comical Italian accent and who balances some age regressive mannerisms with the resignation of an adult, Daphne, a blond who manages public relations on this project and Marciante, a rigid beaurocrat. As the months pass by, these characters are examined in their vocational connections to each other and in a more general sense their own individual passions are brought to the surface in a work that admirably doesn’t segue into cliches and formula.
The director, Christopher Ashley, manges to bring out the funny bits, while still spotlighting the more reverent aspects of the play, which deal with the nature of art. The tone is actually set at the beginning when Giulia explains to the audience that “everything about David is true, but everything else is fiction” and she admits “I love cleaning. I come from a cleaning family. I was the master of the finer touches. I loved polishing silver with soft rags, smearing thick cream polish onto ornate teapots, smooth Revere bowels, and dedicate bud vases. I think that’s why I became what I am–the careful rubbing until the magical transformation.” While Broadway and off-Broadway have featured a seemingly unending run of plays about dysfunctional families the past few years, it appears that ‘art’ is now capturing the attention of some playwrights, as Jonathan Logan’s Red, which just won a Tony for Best Play, concerns the painter Mark Rothko, and another The Glass House, deals with the building of two of these architectural works. Of course, the forerunner of such works is Ibsen’s The Master Builder, which is often revived.
Set designer Scott Pask, who’s one of the busiest out there does a superlative job with the museum room set, hiding David till the very end, and utilyzing some elaborate lighting and some economical use of the far reaches of the stage for exterior meetings.
Ms. Shear’s previous play Dirty Blonde, which is still staged, gave her the opportunity to project her own persona, and in Restoration she again is able to deliver the wry humor she worked into the dialogue to serve as the play’s most prominent underpinning. emotional nuances are brought out in all the characters, including observations encompassing, envy, aging, death, fidelity, success and the nature of beauty. While the laughter is omnipresent throughout, there’s a bittersweet taste in the end, as the rueful undercurrent retains it’s hold as the main character develops a new sense of self-awareness. Hence, Restoration’s meaning is really two-fold.
Note: I saw ‘Restoration’ with Lucille and Broadway Bob on Saturday night at 8:00 P.M., at the New York Theatre Workshop on East 4th Street one day before the closing after a six-week run. We had dinner afterwards at The Dish on the West Side.