"Rome was getting richer and richer," said the tour leader, "and the virtues were getting chipped away at." Some in the tour group were listening intently; others were whispering about the writers' strike, Rome the mini-series, and a new play by Lewis Black. It's not always easy to corral a theater cast on a field trip, even though the setting — the Villa Boscoreale, the suburban Roman square at the heart of the Met's shiny new Greek and Roman Galleries — was highly relevant to their new gig. On this day in early January, they were about to begin rehearsals for Richard Nelson's new play at the Public Theater, Conversations in Tusculum, in which Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero figure out what to do about power-grabbing Caesar between bouts of fishing and drinking in a villa much like this one. They argue amongst themselves, complain about their wives, and consider doing away with the big guy.
Most of the cast was meeting for the first time before heading to a boozy Upper East Side lunch. David Strathairn (Cassius), who had the soft-spoken air and khaki cords of a Vermont professor, had organized the tour — part research session, part cocktail party — after attending a Met benefit. Notably missing was Cicero — Brian Dennehy — who canceled owing to a last-minute voice-over. "Well you know how voice-overs are," said Maria Tucci (Brutus's mother, Servilia). "You just find out the day before. Oh, look at this, they're so sensual," she said, pointing out a series of busts. Aidan Quinn (Brutus) was new to the cast (after Michael Cerveris had to pass). He made up for lost time with some comic relief, dragging ER's Gloria Reuben, who plays his wife, off to a gallery full of men's jewelry, giggling loudly in front of ancient figurines of actors with "masks on the jiggly bits."
Public Theater director Oskar Eustis arrived late, having run over from a meet-and-greet for a Broadway transfer of Passing Strange. A tour like this is "a perk of the job that I don't intend to give up lightly," he said, though as a producer, "the question is whether you're inside or you're viewed as an alien force." Was any of this research going into the actual show, which opens next week? "I love this gallery," said costume designer Susan Hilferty. "But right now, I already have the ideas." In fact, the men will be decked out in the rumpled three-piece suits of Edwardians on holiday, the entire set comprising a couple of benches and a curtain. This pre-rehearsal outing, too, was more about conversations than Tusculum. —Boris Kachka