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The Public Theatre,New York
Through March 30

All talk and no action is fine, at least if the talk is interesting. Sadly, that's not the case with "Conversations in Tusculum."

The potential was there, however, starting with a plot that's basically a prequel to Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Also promising is the fact that it's helmed and written by Richard Nelson, the Tony-winning director of "James Joyce's The Dead." And to bring it all to life is a cast comprising David Strathairn, Brian Dennehy, Aidan Quinn, Gloria Reuben, Joe Grifasi and Maria Tucci.

What's not to like? OK, back to the script, which transforms the lead up to one of history's greatest coups into the most plebeian of dramas.

From the get-go, it's obvious that Nelson is locked into a bona fide cliche: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Worse, this hackneyed sentiment is conveyed with a sledgehammer's subtlety. Accordingly, the characters spout present-day idioms and shun togas for modern dress. By the time the discussion turns to the dangers of a leader who's looking for any excuse to start a war, even George W.'s ardent foes will think this is shooting fish in a barrel.

The playwright tries to flesh out his principals by showing that, even in 45 B.C., people still were bedeviled by love gone awry, truculent mothers-in-law, the generation gap and shifting ideals. To escape such headaches, Brutus and his cronies head to the nearest fishing hole and cast their lines.

It might sound like Mayberry, but the doings take place mostly in a Tusculum-based villa just outside Rome, owned by Brutus (Quinn) and his wife, Porcia (Reuben). Their houseguests include the esteemed senator Cassius (Strathairn), legendary philosopher Cicero (Dennehy), actor Syrus (Grifasi) and Brutus' meddling mom, Servilia (Tucci). Much of the dialogue revolves around the comings and goings of Caesar, whether involving his thirst for power or National Enquirer-like sightings of him with the tarty Cleopatra.

As the sextet's small talk segues to an ill-advised play within the play, it becomes clear that Nelson's troubles are twofold. As a playwright, his writing screams out for editing; as a director, he's woefully unable to enliven the characters' ramblings. In addition, those who aren't aware of the principals' backgrounds and family trees are at a disadvantage. Minds might wander from the dialogue while figuring out, for example, how the unseen Cato is Servilia's brother, Porcia's father, Brutus' uncle and Cicero's colleague. "Dynasty," anyone?

Thomas Lynch's bare-bones set, consisting chiefly of stools, lanterns and a sheet that doubles as shutters and an onstage curtain, ensures that viewers won't be distracted by fancy props. So, it's up to the cast to provide a redeeming feature.

Although perfectly adequate, Reuben, Tucci and Grifasi have little to do. And as two-thirds of the central trio, Strathairn's "lean and hungry" Cassius and Quinn's et-tu-Brutus don't make much impact until late in the proceedings as the talk finally turns to assassination plans.

Dennehy, on the other hand, stands out as the conflicted Cicero, whether eloquently bemoaning his young daughter's passing or addressing the specifics of Roman protocol. Effortlessly slipping between forceful diatribes and quiet reveries, he projects with a resonance that can't be ignored.

But far more than Dennehy's heroics are needed to redeem this meandering, 2 1/2-hour snoozer. Indeed, Nelson's lackings result in a production that's as deadly for playgoers as the Ides of March proved for Caesar.

CONVERSATIONS IN TUSCULUM
Presented by the Public Theater
Credits:
Playwright-director: Richard Nelson
Set designer: Thomas Lynch
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designer/original music: John Gromada
Cast:
Brutus: Aidan Quinn
Cassius: David Strathairn
Cicero: Brian Dennehy
Syrus: Joe Grifasi
Porcia: Gloria Reubens
Servilia: Maria Tucci
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