“Restoration”: My FT Review

I have reviewed Claudia Shear’s new play, “Restoration,” for the Financial Times. Full text after the jump.

Normally, I dislike tidy endings, but in Restoration, Claudia Shear’s new play about Michelangelo’s David at New York Theatre Workshop, such a conclusion is warranted. Tidiness makes sense here: Giulia (Shear), an Italian-American conservator who has been hired in 2003 to restore the sculpture for its 500th anniversary, is a cleanliness freak.

“My favourite thing,” she reminisces in one of the monologues with which this dramatic comedy abounds, “was polishing silver – soft rags smoothing thick cream polish on to ornate teapots, smooth Revere bowls, delicate bud vases. I think that’s why I became what I am, the careful rubbing until the magical transformation, the heavy liquid gleam.”

By the end of this 90-minute evening, which includes Giulia’s interaction in Florence with a gallery security official, two Italian culture bureaucrats and her former art-history professor, it is less a restoration, or even a transformation, that has been effected: more nearly a revelation.

The most dramatic revelation, involving Scott Pask’s ingenious set, which divides David into segments during Giulia’s painstaking re-do, is the show’s emotional high point. But revelation, of a more personal kind, is also the play’s problem. Shear’s characters unburden their problems so directly that the audience has too little to do. There’s insufficient fun piecing together the puzzle of the characters’ relationships with each other and with the totem of Beauty that looms unbendingly behind them. We must content ourselves with Giulia’s flashes of wit, as caustic as her restorative ministrations are gentle; an exchange as she begins her cleaning of David’s uncircumcised penis is especially amusing.

Giulia may represent too perfectly the plight of the unglamorous, middle-aged woman married to her work, and the Italians may symbolise too stereotypically la bella figura, but Shear at least makes a serious attempt to show the grit beneath the gleam. She employed a somewhat similar tactic in Dirty Blonde, her play about Mae West, and, more autobiographically, in her one-woman show, Blown Sideways Through Life. If the results in Restoration aren’t quite as satisfying, the direction, by Christopher Ashley, is top-notch, and the acting is equally fine.

As Max, the head of security, the poised Jonathan Cake effortlessly displays Italian heart-throbbiness. And, as the elderly, acerbic professor, Alan Mandell plays a Gielgud figure Gielwell.

Leave a Comment