Playwrights’ Center

The device that’s used to open John Lisbon Wood’s new historical drama, The Way Men Act, is delightful. While members of the audience are still settling in, a lone actor enters through the same door they used. Dressed in what suggests Elizabethan peasant garb and pulling a huge rolling cart, he’s instantly recognizable as a wandering-minstrel type, lugging all his props and sets with him wherever he goes, more pathetic because he has no jolly cohorts.

Then the cart literally falls apart to reveal the rest of his company, four tenth-rate performers who try to impress us by juggling a little and doing simple headstands. When the Leading Troubador (Bill Drew) takes charge no one seems interested in doing Hamlet, so he suggests they perform The Way Men Act. Seeing the audience “growing restive,” he quickly assigns parts to his colleagues, and the show begins.

This opening instantly brings a potentially heady endeavor–it’s billed as “a new play based on the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli”–down to earth. Not only does the playwright make fun of his characters, depicting them as gentle buffoons who can hardly stay out of one another’s way, but the actors make fun of the playwright, barely putting forth the effort to convince us they’re anything but overworked amateurs.

It’s great fun, and pointedly anti-Machiavellian. These people aren’t duplicitous or ruthless; they seem like workaday schlepps who have agreed to perform tonight because they don’t have anything better to do.

Strangely though, once the dramatization of Machiavelli’s life starts, this theatrical self-consciousness all but disappears. The first act is set in Machiavelli’s garret in exile, where Machiavelli (Shawn Douglass) has summoned Don Vittro (Dexter Zollicoffer) from court to plead that he be reinstated in the government of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Machiavelli’s sweet but moronic servants (James Leagre and Michael Shapiro) repeatedly embarrass him as he tries to persuade Don Vittro that he’s a ruthless enough politician to support the administration that imprisoned and tortured him a few years before.

The act is well written and intelligently structured, and it has the potential for high drama as Machiavelli fights for his political life with a man as passionless as Machiavelli is desperate. The servants are an excellent foil for Machiavelli; it’s all he can do to keep from screaming at them–but of course to do so would be an admission of his lack of diplomatic skills, which would jeopardize his chances of swaying Don Vittro.

Nevertheless this act remains curiously inert. Director Edward Sobel, after inviting the audience in during the opening, changes styles so drastically that the play proper leaves us out. Sobel’s actors rarely acknowledge the audience. As Machiavelli and Don Vittro carefully maneuver, their eyes remain fixed on each other. Locking eyes is necessary once in a while, but sustained for an hour it shrinks the act into an insular exchange.

The language of the play is quite elevated, yet the act is directed in a fairly realistic style–the actors are encouraged to focus on one another and on the emotional state of their character in each moment. This provides a lot of important passion but precludes a broader intellectual reading of the play. The result is a flattening of the text, so that rich lines such as “An empty stomach can produce a vigorous reexamination of one’s political philosophies” can’t achieve much resonance. The line remains part of an argument between two people rather than part of a larger network of ideas that form the act. The actors seem to be trying to persuade one another that they believe what they say, rather than starting from a place where the words are already true.

In the second act, set in the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Sobel solves the insularity problem of the first act by giving his actors colorful masks and costumes as they adopt new characters. This makes sense within the context of the play–it’s carnival at court–but it also creates an important aesthetic distance between the reality of the play and the artificiality of its embodiment. The actors seem remarkably liberated, for the heavy burden of proof they carried during the first act has been lifted from their shoulders. And where in the first act most of the action takes place around a huge wooden table planted at center stage that roots the actors to a small portion of the playing area, Sobel now has his actors striding across a stage that’s entirely clear–and crossing and recrossing in response to the lyricism of the text as much as to the emotional demands of the moment.

However, Wood’s dramatic structure seems less secure in the second act. Lorenzo’s court is unknown to the audience. And since we don’t know where we start, it’s difficult to read the subtle shifts of allegiance between Machiavelli, Lorenzo, and his handlers or to understand what motivates them. As a result, it lacks the dramatic clarity and urgency of the first act.