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A CurtainUp Review

I love cleaning. I come from a cleaning family. . .I was the master of the finer touches. . .I loved polishing silver, soft rags smearing thick cream polish onto 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.— Giulia, introducting the play in which "everything about the David is true; everything else is fiction."
Claudia Shear
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
While playwrights continue to display a penchant for plays about dysfunctional families and lovers, there's also been a welcome focus on Art in all its permutations. Broadway audiences have embraced Jonathan Logan 's Red, about the painter Mark Rothko (review). Two plays about architects opened Off-Broadway within a week of each other: Oren Safdie's The Bilbao Effect, an absurdist sendup of how city planners pursue celebrity architects to boost tourism, and June Finfer's historical drama, The Glass House, about the two most famous glass houses built by "starchitects" Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, the latter paired with the granddaddy of architect themed plays, Ibsen's The Master Builder. (Bilbao Effect review . . . The Glass House review).

Trust playwright/performer Claudia Shear (Dirty Blonde, Blown Sideways Through Life) to use the conservator's art to fashion a serio-comic play, and for the New York Theatre Workshop to give it an elegantly staged production. Shear sticks to the facts pertaining to the restoration of Michaelangelo's David statue for Florence's 2004 celebration of its 500th anniversary, but turns it into a story of personal restoration by stepping into the shoes of the real artisan, Cinzia Parnigoni. And so, as the program states "Everything about the David is true; everything else is fiction."

Giulia's love affair with the legendary marble man and the way her commission to restore him to his original beauty also transforms her from a too outspoken loner unable to connect to flesh and blood people. It's all a bit too facile and predictable but it does make for a crowd pleasing finale. As she did with the still often staged Dirty Blonde, Shear has written herself a role well suited to her talents and persona. From the witty opening monologue onward, the script blends serious ruminations with enough of Shear's wry humor, to makes Restoration an appealing and enjoyable addition to this year's crop of new art-themed plays. Restoration's satisfying entertainment factor is given a big boost by Christopher Ashley's astute and zippy direction. The production's visual beauty owes a huge debt to Scott Pask's inventive scenic design that surrounds the David statue with a scaffold and reveals different portions of the full figure as Giulia's work on it progresses. David Lander's lighting is another big plus.

The Italian-born Brooklynite whose stalled career is given a second chance — provided she parks her stubborn truth-telling persona long enough to nab the David commission— is undoubtedly the play's center piecer. In fact, the focus is so much on Giulia that Restoration could easily be tagged as a solo show with subsidiary walk-on characters. Fortunately, Shear has fleshed out her entire cast of characters to be more than so many "Extras," and Mr. Ashley has assembled an ensemble that beautifully supports the transformative journey from Brooklyn to Florence.

My own favorite was veteran actor Alan Mandel as the Professor who refuses to let the student he mentored remain trapped in an unrewarding life. He's a charming snob and not too blase to make his own poignant journey convincing. The play's overall feel-good appeal is heightened by the fact that there's more than meets the eye to these subsidiary characters.

Jonathan Cake is terrific as the talkative macho male who, as the chief museum guard, is an almost constant presence as Giulia works. Tina Benko as the restoration's young publicist Daphne and Natalija Nogulich as Marciante, the older administrator are also not quite the all chic (bravo to costumer David C. Woolard!) and practicality establishment types Giulia must deal with as part of her assignment. Nogulich impressively portrays two characters besides the elegant Marciante — one of them a Museum cleaning lady who serves as a delicious counterpart to the more elevated cleaning work of the restorer.

If you're among theater goers who found Red too much of a highbrow snob show, you'll probably l find Restoration more to your liking. Yet, while Restoration is a more schmaltzy play, you can expect to learn more than a thing or two about the finer points of the restorer's art.

Written and performed by Claudia Shear
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Cast: Claudia Shear (Giulia), Tina Benko (Daphne), Jonathan Cake (Max), Alan Mandell (Professor), Natalija Nogulich (Marciante/ Beatrice/Nonna)
Det design: Scott Pask
Costume design: David C. Woolard
Lighting design: David Lander
Original Music & Sound design: Dan Moses Schreier
Video design: Kristin Ellert
Wig design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer
Dramaturgy: Gabiel Greene Stage Manager: Katherine Wallace New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery,
From 4/20/10; opening 5/19/10; closing 6/13/10.
Tuesday at 7:00pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 3:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm and 7:00pm.
Tickets: $65
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer May 16th press matinee
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