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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

What is it about Ancient Rome and its struggling, plebeian, theater artists that attracted two of America's top playwrights? Last year, the Kirk Douglas Theatre staged the World Premiere of David Mamet's Keep Your Pantheon, a comedy about a down-and-out actor, named Strabo, who runs a third-rate theater company in Julius Caesar's Rome.

This January, South Coast Repertory is presenting the World Premiere of Amy Freed's new comedy, titled You, Nero, about a down-and-out playwright named Scribonius, who lives about 100 years later, in Nero's Rome, but who hasn't had a hit since the reign of Claudius.

Both Strabo and Scribonius are so desperate to regain their lost fame that they enter into dangerous bargains: Strabo impersonates a famous actor to win the favor Rome's richest man; Scribonius agrees to write an address in honor of the Emperor Nero — the 64 AD equivalent of collaborating with Kim Jong-Il on a movie that shows him in a better light.

Both playwrights use the ancient Roman setting as a parallel to our own enlightened times: Mamet by showing us that theater artists in the age of Seneca were no more honored or respected than the guy at Starbucks rewriting his screenplay all afternoon at the corner or Westwood and Santa Monica. Because of this, the moral of the Keep Your Pantheon seems to be: artists are no more honorable or trustworthy as Senators or Soldiers, but at least they're more entertaining.

Amy Freed, on the other hand, uses her desperate playwright to make another point. While her Scribonius makes a Faustian pact to advance his career, the moral of You, Nero would seem to be that artists can make these compromises as long as their intentions are pure.

As we meet Nero early in Freed's play, it becomes clear that he is no longer content to be emperor, he also wants to direct. This first scene is one of the play's best: we see Nero holding what appears to be a bloody corpse. It perfectly introduces us to the mad, seductive unpredictable energy of Nero—played with gleeful menace by Danny Scheie.

But Nero is not the protagonist, he's the Norma Desmond to Scribonius's Joe Gillis. Alas, Freed doesn't seem to think that her writer should pay any price for becoming a kept man and so as You, Nero progresses, any sense of drama dissipates. The play becomes less a farce and more a moral treatise, albeit it one sprinkled with insider theater anachronisms (like A Chorus Line gags) and punchlines like: “The furies are so 400 years ago.”

When Freed merely makes comparisons between our age and Nero's, the play is convincing. The scene of Scribonius and his chief thespian going to the Circus Maximus to take in the vulgar spectacle is amusing, it's like watching John Updike and August Wilson duck into The Grove to watch a double feature of Beverly Hills Chihuahua and The Dark Knight—they both quickly realize: we can't compete with this crap. It's funny, sad, and true—theater can't compete with Chariot races or Jerry Springer and yet it has outlasted the former and will likely outlast the latter too.

But by the time Freed's play ends with Nero as a contestant on Roman Idol, the comparison becomes a lecture. Throughout You Nero, theater (as opposed to other popular entertainments) is shown to be a form of benevolent therapy: once Nero sees the play about difficult childhood, he will alter his decadent, despotic ways; once future audiences hear Scribonius' tale, other Romes will not burn. In this way the title becomes an accusation: You Neros of the world, you caused all this...if only you had listened to us artists.

Unfortunately, Freed seems to have forgotten that one Nero isn't enough to let the barbarians through the gates these days, he needs followers and enablers (all of whom, Nero included, consider themselves artists or poets of sorts). A satire interested in questioning the decadence in today's society instead of just moralizing might have been called I, Nero or more accurately We, Nero.

Amy Freed's You, Nero runs through Sunday at South Coast Repertory.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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