Socrates was so annoying to his fellow Athenians that even some of those jurors who had voted to acquit him joined the majority to have him condemned to death during the penalty phase of his infamous trial. That, anyway, is what Plato (Teagle F. Bougere) tells his young student (Niall Cunningham) in “Socrates,” a play by Tim Blake Nelson. Whether or not this is true, Michael Stuhlbarg does a magnificent job in his performance as Socrates to convince us how infuriating it must have been to be around this “greatest thinker” who questioned everybody and everything: What is wisdom? What is democracy? Is there such a thing as virtue, if a woman’s virtue is defined differently from a man’s? Do laws and the calendar and theater help us make sense of the world, or just fool us into thinking we do? Is it possible, then, that “the more we believe we have organized truths, the further away from them we actually get?”
These are among the challenging questions that Stuhlbarg’s Socrates pursues in a series of encounters that are more intellectually stimulating than dramatically engaging.
The playwright, who was a Classics major in college, is nothing if not diligent. Since we know nothing of the real Socrates except through his disciple Plato’s written dialogues, for example, it is Plato who narrates the play, which is framed as his response to his own constantly questioning student.
But Nelson, who’s best known as a movie actor, (especially in such Coen Brothers movies as “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” and the recent “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”), has insisted on peopling his play with a cast of 16, all but four of whom portray at least two characters. Few of the characters get more than a moment or two in the spotlight, most as foils for Socrates’ arguments. I’m not sure what any director could have done to help us sort out Aenesdemos from Andromachus from Eryximachus on the crowded stage, or make them come alive, but director Doug Hughes doesn’t do it. He seems to focus on creating attractive painterly (i.e. static) tableaux, with the crucial assist of the design team, especially Scott Pask’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes.
There are intriguing glimpses of Athenian society here and there in the play — the long anecdote by the great military general Alcibiades (Austin Smith) of his youthful attempt to seduce Socrates sexually is an eye-opener. But it’s only in the last half hour in this nearly three hour play that “Socrates” feels as much like a drama as a philosophy lesson, starting with Socrates’ trial on trumped-up charges. Despite the entreaties of his followers, his friends, and his wife Xanthippe (Miriam A. Hyman), he refuses to defend himself, and, once sentenced to death, refuses to flee. He also opts to take his own life rather than have an executioner do it, a riveting death scene. “By drinking the poison myself I spare Athens committing the injustice,” he tells one of his admirers.
I can’t claim to understand his arguments any better than his contemporaries did. But in “Socrates,” the playwright does drive home what it was that has made Socrates so influential — what Plato learned from the man who refused to call himself a teacher. It was his insistence on questioning everything, his belief that “nothing is purely what we think it is…
“No greater thinker will ever walk this earth,” Plato tells his new student. But not because of Socrates’ ideas, “of which he actually had very few,” but rather because of Socrates’ “method for finding the ideas.” It’s what we now call the Socratic method. The obverse could be said of “Socrates,” Tim Nelson Blake’s play: Its value lies in the ideas it contains, rather than in the way they are presented on stage.
Written by Tim Blake Nelson
Directed by Doug Hughes. Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Catherine Zuber, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau,
sound design and original music by Mark Bennett, wig design by Tom Watson,
fight direction by J. David Brimmer
Cast: David Aaron Baker,Teagle F. Bougere, Niall Cunningham, Peter Jay Fernandez,Karl Green, Miriam A. Hyman, Robert Joy, Alan Mendez,Tom Nelis,Dave Quay,Daniel Reece,Austin Smith, Michael Stuhlbarg. Joe Tapper,
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $85 (rush $20)
“Socrates” is on stage through May 19, 2019