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Theater review: 'Restoration' at La Jolla Playhouse

July 10, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Shear1 

Cleaning things is Giulia’s therapy and her source of self-esteem. But we’re not talking about scouring kitchen floors and disinfecting toilet bowls, though she enjoys those tasks too. It’s in restoring priceless works of art that Giulia’s talent for transformation flourishes. Trouble is, her lonely, embittered life needs as much sprucing up as the discolored statues she meticulously scrubs.

Though definitely not the most charming of characters, Giulia nevertheless makes for a compelling psychological study. And in “Restoration,” which is receiving its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, Claudia Shear, who wrote the piece and stars as Giulia, doesn’t stint on the more dislikable features of this woman’s personality.
 
Difficult people — the kind you’d be sure not to invite to your next dinner party — can make fascinating protagonists. Unfortunately, Shear develops her drama along pat and predictable lines. Giulia’s defensive nastiness turns out to be a whole lot easier to remove than Renaissance grime. Shear doesn’t even have to apply much elbow grease to get us to see her character’s oh-so-sensitive soul under the grudging muck.

Shear2 The dramatic journey is narrow yet cosmopolitan: Giulia is given a career-making opportunity from her former mentor from Columbia University, Professor Williams (Alan Mandell), to go to Florence and restore Michelangelo’s David for its 500th birthday. The only drawback is that she’ll have to temporarily move out of her cramped comfort zone in Brooklyn, where she has resigned herself to a scholarly life filled with books, brushes and chemical solvents — and as little human contact as possible.

A modern-day spinster habitually rebuffing all overtures of friendship, she’d rather ply her specialized trade without any small talk or phony niceties. But the idea of rubbing the world’s most famous hunk of masculine marble propels her to interview with the two Italian women who will oversee her work.

Professor Williams anticipates trouble. The older and elegant Marciante (Natalija Nogulich) and the beautiful and still young Daphne (Kate Shindle) aren't likely to be as patient with Giulia as he has been. But the real combustible concern is that these characters are basically smartly-dressed lessons in the idea that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
 
For as much as Giulia feels disqualified by her homely looks, she also makes assumptions about others based on theirs — particularly the more attractive ones. This flaw in her thinking will be further exposed in her dealings with Max (Daniel Serafini-Sauli), the bubbly and amorous security guard who tries to engage her in conversation as she blots and swabs in her sterilizing silence. 
 
An Italian sensualist, Max flirts with women as a form of courtesy. He’s married but sees no harm in an embrace followed by a furtive squeeze while on duty. To Giulia, he’s a typical man, smiling yet untrustworthy, the very reason to stay away from the opposite sex. She writes him off as an annoyance, on par with Marciante and Daphne, not suspecting how much he has to teach her about the deceiving nature of appearances.

Part of the problem with “Restoration” is that the play doesn’t really provide Giulia with a convincing foil. Although best known for "Dirty Blonde," her play about Mae West that found success on Broadway, Shear came into her own with the one-woman show, “Blown Sideways Through Life,” and in some respects she approaches “Restoration” as a solo piece, albeit one in which the sun of her central character is surrounded by a few more or less incidental planets.

Shear’s prose is at its most poetic when Giulia is musing aloud introspectively. In her opening speech, she vividly describes the origins of her calling: “My favorite thing was 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, the heavy liquid gleam.”

By contrast, the dialogue tends to move with a thudding tread. Shear spells out her meanings rather than capturing them, and her attempts at natural banter often have a contrived ring.

Still, there’s something sentimentally involving about her story. And Christopher Ashley’s production has a contemporary beauty, thanks largely to Scott Pask’s imaginative scenic design, in which only selective parts of the David statue are visible through the surrounding scaffolding.

As an actress, Shear may not be the most subtle, but there’s an emotional directness to her presence that’s attention-grabbing. The rest of the cast, while able, struggles to makes something substantive out of the character table scraps they’re offered.

Audiences who are moved by quick-and-easy tales of personal redemption will no doubt find “Restoration” affecting, but something tells me there’s a more authentic version of Shear’s tale lying under the waxy finish.

-- Charles McNulty

"Restoration," Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends: July 19. $30-$65. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Photo: Top: Claudia Shear. Bottom: Shear and Daniel Serafini-Sauli. Credit: Craig Schwartz

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