Richard Nelson’s tedious Conversations in Tusculum arrives too late to the party in which writers compare the Bush administration to classical wartime scenarios. Lewis Lapham, writing in Harper’s, has excoriated W. in this fashion practically in real time, and Cullen Murphy’s book Are We Rome? has already explored another link, to name two recent examples. Something of a prequel to Julius Caesar, Conversations finds conspirators Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero seething, grumbling, and shaking their fists at Caesar’s bravado. They also lament Cato’s suicide, while Cicero mourns the loss of his daughter.
High-profile actors Aidan Quinn (Brutus), David Strathairn (Cassius), and Brian Dennehy (Cicero) lend relatively muted performances to this chamber piece, whose intimacy is raised to the level of Brechtian device by the distracting qualities of the Public’s Anspacher Theatre. Left nearly raw by set designer Thomas Lynch, the bowl-like space magnifies every cough and entitles anyone down front to a whiff of Dennehy’s strong (though not unpleasant) cologne.
The overwhelming monotony stems from several problems in the play’s conception. While it’s clever to look at the story of Caesar’s fall from an unusual vantage point, Nelson has written a play that consists of dialogues in which exciting events—wars, betrayals, suicides—are described from a distance. Interesting people who profoundly affect the characters never appear. Conversations is so perversely anti-dramatic, it’s almost brilliant: For nearly two and a half hours, everything that happens occurs offstage.
A dramatist with Nelson’s award-clogged résumé would seem equal to the challenge of infusing excitement into this action-free scenario by peppering it with fresh insights, intense emotions, or even poetry. Instead, his Brutus erupts in TV-ready tantrums: “Look at us. Look at what we’ve become . . . Look at us. This country was us. Our beliefs. Our ambitions . . . What has happened to us? We were confident. Strong. How did he unravel that? . . . How?!!!” Nor is this banal, repetitive assessment of Caesar’s ambition elevated by Quinn’s lapses into working-class diction. Is he invoking the parallel, one wonders, already established between ancient Rome and The Sopranos?
In the end, the play mimics America’s tepid response to Bush’s long, distant war perhaps a bit too closely. Conversations ends with the decision to assassinate Caesar—it’s only plot point, and a predictable one at that. But Nelson’s suggestion that America might solve a similar problem by rubbing out its own lousy leader is clearly unwise: If Bush is Caesar, then Cheney would be Caligula.