Oh dear, Nero's back. The Roman emperor who gave aesthetes a murderous name is once again rasping orders about the fabulous new pageant he wants to produce while pawing men, women and eunuchs with a rapaciousness that would make Hugh Hefner blush.
The occasion for this return visit is Amy Freed's comedy "You, Nero," which had its world premiere Friday at South Coast Repertory. And riotously played by Danny Scheie as a sexually omnivorous imp suffering a Liza Minnelli complex, Nero just wants to lavishly entertain us. So what if Rome smells like it's starting to burn.
Prancing around like an unknown "Queer Eye" cast member on some incredible recreational drugs, Scheie paints a flouncy portrait of caprice run amok. Over-accessorized and wearing extravagant lounge wear, he's a fancy divan potato holding a universal remote that controls not just all the home entertainment options but also the fate of everyone under his rule.
Only a fool with a death wish would stand in the way of his blockbuster. Tragedy may be outlawed and mindless spectacle the only game in town, but he's commissioned Scribonius (John Vickery), an acclaimed if largely forgotten playwright who has been struggling to earn a living as public taste has grown cheesier, to dramatize the story of his life.
Poetic license is naturally encouraged. Fearful of the possibility of uprising, Nero is determined to get the mob to adore him. He's a narcissist who knows he has a horrendous image problem. And what more effective form of rehabilitation than a theater festival in his honor?
Freed, who often takes inspiration from the theatrical past ("The Beard of Avon," "Restoration Comedy"), is in silly spirits here, but her satiric intentions are deadly serious. What do the dominant forms of popular entertainment say about a culture? Does a populist passion for "American Idol" -- or the lion-feeding equivalent at the Colosseum -- spell nationwide idiocy? And can the arts cultivate better leadership among leaders? Could Nero, for instance, "come to believe and prefer the role of virtue, if he sees it lauded by the crowds"?
Scribonius, heeding advice from stoical Seneca (Richard Doyle, in one of several roles), is willing to give it a shot. To "restrain the reckless course of tyranny from its fatal headlong tilt," he comes up with a title for his bio-drama: "Nero, the Just and Good Emperor." Fortunately, his vain patron likes the ring of it. Now if he could only remember the name of that poor imbecile he was supposed to pardon.
All sides are skewered in Freed's smart sendup of imperial decadence, but the farcical antics have a kind of treadmill monotony: There aren't enough crazy spikes, though a campy scene in which Scheie's Nero indulges his inner Freddie Mercury noticeably raises the volume of the hilarity.
Whenever Scheie is onstage, for that matter, the comedy flirts with blissful lunacy. Yet overall, the play's humor is erratic. David Mamet's "Keep Your Pantheon," a one-act gag machine about ancient Roman thespians presented last spring at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, though far less ambitious, was consistently zingier.
Perhaps the fault lies in the production, which as directed by Sharon Ott seems flat-footed. It's all attractively arrayed on Erik Flatmo's terra cotta-hued set and Paloma H. Young's costumes are a Forum-going hoot. But Freed's eloquent wit isn't always so well synchronized, the sight gags go off with a thud, and the second bananas are, if you'll forgive the pun, overripe.
Lori Larsen lends Agrippina, Nero's Oedipal sweetheart, a wacky realistic tread, but her characterization lacks the necessary comic nimbleness. And as Nero's finagling mistress, Poppaea, Caralyn Kozlowski deploys a daft charm that goes absolutely nowhere.
In the comparatively smaller role of Batheticus, the actor who chides Scribonius for wasting his talent on schlock, Hal Landon Jr. has a bit more success wringing anachronistic laughs. "We were scheduled to run through the Ides of March," he tells his friend about his last gig, "but we just couldn't get the houses." Apparently, if your work isn't filled with obscenity or dismemberment, the most you can expect is a small train of elderly theatergoers.
Freed is a master of inside jokes about theater (there's an uproarious bit about pornographic mimes). But strangely, Scribonius, the playwright-for-hire who serves as both protagonist and narrator, is a rather pallid creation. Vickery, an ace veteran, gives a solid, unforced performance, yet it sometimes seems as if he's playing a Nathan Lane role with the majority of the punch lines crossed out.
Empty shtick, of course, isn't Freed's specialty. She's a dramatist before she's a cutup. But she's at her best when the two sides of her sensibility are pinging off each other.
That communion, however, happens only when Scheie's Nero is center stage. Tyrannizing over his variety show like a fey Simon Cowell, this histrionic vulgarian gets the theater he deserves (as all cultures in the end do). But he's also the main reason for seeing Freed's patchily diverting latest.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Jan. 25.
Price: $28 to $64
Contact: (714) 708-5555
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes