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Review: In ‘Socrates,’ a Brainy Tribute to a Prickly Provocateur

Category: Art & Culture,Theater

The gadfly of the agora wears coarse clothes and a coating of grime. Stubbornly humble in appearance, he is a stocky man, usually barefoot, and when he does put on shoes they’re aggressive in their plainness — nothing like the tall, strappy gladiator sandals adorning the men around him.

This is Socrates, and if he looks like a penniless street preacher, he has the oratorical skills to match, though he trades not in homilies but in questions, incessantly: “What is love?” “What is wisdom?” “What is true?”

And when a friend arrives in the wee hours, waking him to report a pronouncement from the oracle at Delphi — there is, she said, no wiser man in Greece than Socrates — he greets the news with a query: “What is harm?”

“I’m not debating definitions with you now,” his friend replies.

Argument and inquiry are the engines of Tim Blake Nelson’s “Socrates,” which opened on Tuesday night at the Public Theater, starring a sublime Michael Stuhlbarg in the title role. In a meticulously handsome production by Doug Hughes, this is a play that hums with intelligence. It takes a fitting form: Everything that unfolds within it, telling the story of the great philosopher, is prompted by a question from a young man new to Athens, who in the wake of Socrates’ death by hemlock finds the place “murderous.”

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“A city that killed its greatest thinker,” the boy says to Plato, Socrates’ most famous acolyte. “Killed him like a traitor. Why did they do that?”

Plato (Teagle F. Bougere) guides the boy (Niall Cunningham) through the past, and what follows does answer the question, extensively. But reverence is a heavy thing, and it weighs down this nearly three-hour play, whose overlong first act is so devoted to showing its prickly and endearing provocateur in his element — surrounded by admirers and enemies, jousting about virtue or the fundamental properties of color — that it succeeds more on academic merits than dramatic ones.

It’s apt, then, that “Socrates” is the centerpiece of the Onassis Festival, a program of panels and performances at the Public that this year is focused on democracy. As the play outlines Socrates’ life and how he met his end, it shows what it looks like when a democracy responds with mortal force to someone who dares to question it, shutting him up by condemning him to death.

[A contemporary philosopher’s answers to Socrates]

Yet things might have turned out differently. As the vastly more successful second act makes clear, he could have paid a fine to save himself, or consented to exile. But as a man of principle in the city that is his home, he bats away those possibilities. His friends beg him otherwise, and his wife, Xanthippe (Miriam A. Hyman), implores him to think of her and their boys. Even to the people who love him, Socrates is a pretty maddening guy.

Those people would appear to include Mr. Nelson, who is best known as a comic actor and recently played the title role in the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” But he has long been a playwright, too; in the 1990s, Mr. Hughes directed several of his dramas, including “The Grey Zone” and “Anadarko.” Even before that, Mr. Nelson had tried to write a play about Socrates.

This “Socrates” is a more recent effort. In its affection for its subject — as well as its determination to set the record straight on a towering figure about whom the historical record is subject to debate, largely because Socrates didn’t leave writings behind — you can sense the Brown University classics major Mr. Nelson once was. His lively engagement with the philosopher is palpable in the script, too, where he calls for the play to “be performed fluidly, boisterously.”

But he also stipulates that 16 actors portray the 40-plus characters, a condition that is honored at the Public and feels like a mistake. On the page, there is a lightness to “Socrates” that eludes much of this overcrowded production. Though Mr. Hughes varies the staging, loads of the cast spend great stretches of time with nothing to do but be spectators while an arcane debate plays out, or someone tells a story that’s less amusing than it means to be.

Would it work differently if those extra bodies onstage, listening, were audience members instead of actors? Maybe. The production perks up every time Socrates addresses the audience directly, stating his case to the jury that will decide his fate. The magnetic Mr. Stuhlbarg is so transfixing, so proficient at charming a crowd, that it’s a wonder Socrates isn’t let off with only a warning. He probably would have fought them on that, too, though. He would argue about anything.

The drama gains speed in the second act, as the philosopher’s death nears and the stakes no longer feel abstract. The play focuses more tightly on him and his circle, and the dialogue trades debate for conversation. These interactions are suddenly more human, not least whenever Xanthippe appears. History has branded her a shrew, but Mr. Nelson views her sympathetically, and hands her one of the play’s funniest lines.

“I know you won’t extol my virtues as a husband and father,” Socrates grouses to his wife, “given the berating that goes on under my roof on a daily basis.”

“A daily basis?” she says, incredulous. “You’re home every day?”

A word of warning to those who are fluent in ancient Greek: You may be distracted by the walls of Scott Pask’s startlingly beautiful set. They’re inscribed — not just onstage, but all the way up the aisles — with passages from the funeral oration that the Athenian general Pericles delivered circa 430 B.C. He was talking about democracy.

Candles glow from recesses in the walls of this elegant, clean-lined set — a classically contemplative monument to democracy, and the shell for Mr. Nelson’s memorial to Socrates. The philosopher would have grumped about such surroundings, but never mind. They’re breathtaking.

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