Tim Blake Nelson may best be known for his lead performances in the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” He’s also a writer and Greek scholar who knows precisely where any play about Socrates ought to begin — with the Symposium, arguably the most accessible, i.e., lurid, thing Plato ever wrote.
“Socrates” received its world premiere Tuesday at the Public Theater, and Nelson doesn’t mess around. After a brief intro where a precocious young man (Niall Cunningham) questions the old Plato (Teagle F. Bougere) about the forced suicide of Socrates (Michael Stuhlbarg), Nelson’s play flashes back to a rip-roaring bacchanal where the very buff Alcibiades (Austin Smith) accuses the flabby, great thinker Socrates of trying to seduce him, much to the drunken delight of everyone, including Socrates himself — who, of course, denies it.
The scene is wonderfully bawdy fun under Doug Hughes’ rousing direction, and before we get to the long slog of the Dialogues, Scott Pask’s austere monochromatic set, which is part forum and part bath house, opens upstage to give us an orgy (appropriately garish lighting by Tyler Micoleau) that depicts the desecration of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The scene would have been the envy of Cecil B. DeMille.
In other words, Nelson, Hughes, Pask, Micoleau and even costume designer Catherine Zuber (her period togas expose those actors’ biceps that deserve to be exposed and cover those actors’ bodies that should be covered) are all masters of the theater who know how to grab out attention — even for those who never read Plato.
“Socrates” eventually settles into the expected series of debates (what is color? virtue? shape? rhetoric? a table?), and it is here that Stuhlbarg shows us his original theater chops before he became Hollywood’s favorite character actor (“The Post,” “Call Me by Your Name,” and “The Shape of Water” in 2017 alone).
Sometime before the debate on what is a table, it becomes clear why Plato left the playwriting to Aristophanes (Tom Nelis), whose efforts in that area don’t get a good review in “Socrates.”
While Stuhlbarg is dogged and persnickety to the point of enragement in these debates, that deliberate frustration delivers a significant dramatic payoff in the riveting second act. Nelson’s adaptation of the Republic is a step-by-step indictment of democracy, or, at the very least, the pitfalls of democracy.
In film and TV, Stuhlbarg can sometimes slip into the sentimental by turning a character into a huggable mench. His Socrates, on the other hand, epitomizes prickly. Anyone who gets too close will learn the hard way and be bloodied with wisdom. Never is his iron will more exposed and ready to cut all human ties than in the climactic confrontation with his wife, Xanthippe (the powerful Miriam A. Hyman).
Nelson wrenches open that line between the public and the private to create a chasm of misunderstanding, and uses humor for his first incisive cut. When Socrates complains of Xanthippe’s “berating that goes on under my roof on a daily basis,” she replies, “A daily basis? You’re home every day?” Later, her furious and rightful concern for their family reduces Socrates’s maddeningly studied reason to egotistic rhetoric. Her arguments are seemingly unassailable: Socrates had a father; his own sons will not. Socrates has rights in Athens; being a woman, she has none.
Because we’re only human and Socrates is something greater, it’s almost impossible not to take Xanthippe’s side in this debate. Then Nelson gives us the planet’s most famous suicide. It’s an extended moment in the theater, brilliantly acted in a way that places it outside time and yet opens a window to the very distant past. We witness a death that changed everything. You will want to be there.