Arena Stage’s new comedy, “You, Nero,” feels like an over-extended T.V. comedy sketch. After watching it last night, I went home and enjoyed a Netflix episode of the Catherine Tate show…and I think Tate’s comedy better fun and better written than Amy Freed’s attempt to write a satirical romp through the ancient Rome of crazy Nero.
It’s bracing to watch a two-hour-plus piece of theater simply fall flat, raising questions about how it got so far, with so much investment of talent (Danny Scheie as Nero is good fun) and money, without someone simply saying: There’s nothing here. The humor is derived from two unrelated premises: The play of anachronism between ancient Rome and contemporary life, and inside, meta-jokes aimed at people who care about theater. So we get a playwright struggling to please Nero with a script he pecks out on a typewriter; and Nero imagining an Ancient Roman version of “A Chorus Line.”
There are a few laughs, but lightly scattered, and most of the slapstick is comically inert. There does seem to be an attempt to say something deeper about the role theater plays in forming audiences and reforming politics. Freed suggests we get the theater we deserve. But these themes feel grafted on, a belated attempt to give the show heft. But it doesn’t quite work and you wish, in the end, that rather than strain at seriousness, the creative team had simply opted for shorter and sillier.