Romps by and About a Firebrand of Florence

Published: January 21, 2006

Poor Machiavelli. The English language has made his very name synonymous with deceit and duplicity. For many people he was the embodiment of evil. Now there are two plays being staged at Manhattan Theater Source, a new one about his exile and a revival of his "Mandrake," in which his life and work are merely the fodder for whimsical comedy.

In fact, Machiavelli was just the prototype of modern power politics. He sought to serve the republic of Florence by any means possible. If that meant lying, cheating and betrayal, well, it was Machiavelli who wrote that the ends often justify the means. He was, in that regard, no more nefarious than any competent lobbyist, spin doctor or politician working in Washington today.

The new play, by Richard Vetere, is simply called "Machiavelli," with the subtitle "a comedy." The program should also carry a warning that while it is based on real people, almost nothing that happens onstage is true. After a prologue in rhymed couplets, the play opens with Machiavelli in prison undergoing torture. So far, so good. After the Medici returned to power in Florence in 1512, Machiavelli was fired from his post in the government. Two months later he was arrested and tortured on suspicion of being part of an anti-Medici plot.

From then on, Mr. Vetere's play takes off on flights of fancy. Machiavelli was indeed spared execution and exiled to his estate outside Florence, where the play's second act takes place, but it was not as a result of his wife sleeping with Giuliano de' Medici, or of Machiavelli outwitting both Giuliano and his nephew Lorenzo when they visited him in prison. It is clear that Mr. Vetere is writing strictly for laughs. With his director, Andrew Frank, he has turned two Medici leaders into cartoon characters. When Giuliano enters Machiavelli's cell, he more resembles a foppish courtier, like Osric in "Hamlet," than the ruling prince of Florence. Lorenzo, on the other hand, comes on like a Renaissance Terminator, a bloodthirsty killer who lives only to whack people to death.

A good cast delivers on the humor, and James Wetzel is especially admirable in the title role. But by playing so fast and loose with history, "Machiavelli" ends up being a spoof rather than a sophisticated comedy. (And for the record, Lorenzo did not assassinate Giuliano, nor did he woo Machiavelli's daughter or die by the sword. Both those Medici princes died natural deaths, Lorenzo eight years before Machiavelli.)

During his exile on his farm, Machiavelli grew olives and wrote. He wrote "The Prince," "The Discourses" and "The Art of War," all works on which his reputation as a conniving, amoral politician is based. He also wrote plays. Oddly, he wrote comedies for the stage. If he was not exactly the Neil Simon of 16th-century Florence, he packed them in and left them laughing.

His most popular play was "The Mandrake," which was widely performed and, by all accounts, wildly popular. The title comes from the old wives' tale that a woman who drinks a potion made from the mandrake root is certain to conceive a child, the only drawback being that the man with whom she first has sex after taking the potion will die within eight days. The story evolves around Callimaco, a lovesick Florentine who will do anything to bed Lucrezia, the beautiful young wife of Nicia, a doddering lawyer desperate for an heir. To his lustful ends Callimaco employs the services of Ligurio and Brother Timothy, a priest who will do anything for money.

Some critics have tried to find a théâtre à clef in the play, but one could as easily assign real-life identities from the Bush White House as from the Medici court for Machiavelli's characters. As written by Machiavelli, "The Mandrake" is aimed at exposing the cupidity and corruption of church and state in Renaissance Florence. In the hands of Daryl Boling, the director, it is a sex romp, more a burlesque than a satirical farce.

Still, the staging is not without its laughs, and a new translation by Vincent Marano is faithful to the original. Mr. Boling has employed a lot of shtick, especially when any hint of a double entendre crops up in the text. One extended bit of business with a bottle containing a urine sample almost reduces the entire proceedings to the nature of a frat house skit.

An able and energetic cast throws itself into the action and earns its chuckles. Jeffrey Plunkett is quite good as Callimaco, giving a passable Gene Wilder impersonation in one monologue, and Michael Shattner is a droll foil as Nicia.

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