“He was utterly confounding,” Plato reminisces about Socrates at the start of Tim Blake Nelson’s new play at the Public Theater. And the same might be said of the play Socrates, an exhaustive retelling of the influential Athenian’s life and death. On the one hand, it’s a superb exploration of the world’s first experiment with democracy in Ancient Greece. Socrates, the intellectual heavyweight at its center, introduces his method of enquiry that still shapes how we frame many debates today. But, at the same time, it feels like the unexpurgated transcripts of such a Socratic style, resulting in a relentless and punishingly long play that is, in parts, indulgently portrayed.
Plato was one of Socrates’ followers and is our primary sources for everything we know about the philosopher, who wrote nothing himself. Thoughtfully portrayed here by Teagle F. Bougere, he frames the action by remembering his mentor for the benefit of his own new pupil (a gushing Niall Cunningham). The cast is, without exception, extremely strong in what is a demanding production. But the most powerful performance is delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg whose shambling, scruffy Socrates persistently badgers his way through some dizzying verbal arguments on everything from the meaning of virtue to why he refuses not to submit to the death penalty imposed on him by his fellow Athenians. Gay generals, effete poets, and “Make Greece Great Again” blacksmiths all enter into sparring matches with Socrates who wins every argument, even if the outcome leads to his death.
This all plays out on Scott Pask’s set of stone walls engraved with Greek text. A pamphlet distributed at the end, explains that the words belong to Pericles, a Greek general who is referred to in the play as one of the best leaders in Athens. Read in translation, the speech reproduced on the walls is stirring stuff and relevant to Socrates’ guiding question of how he and others can become good human beings, or at least as good as possible. But the speech’s provenance is not revealed until after the curtain call – an oversight that would be worth correcting.
Under Doug Hughes’ direction there are, somewhat unexpectedly in a play about philosophy, plenty of good laughs. The first act includes an extended ribald scene in which a ripped Austin Smith as Alcebiades recounts how he tried and failed to seduce Socrates. In another, Socrates takes down a pretentious poet with much hilarious aplomb. But the overall tone is hectoring as Socrates’ opponents try to win arguments by shouting the loudest. Socrates himself does not come over as lovable, even though his followers profess their love and reverence for him. His uncompromising pursuit of the truth (“I simply ask questions,” he says disingenuously) humiliates and alienates as many as it seduces. His arrogance and obstinate nature also make him a terrible husband and father. Miriam A. Hyman does sterling work with the thankless part of Xanthippe, his wife. Her role is shamefully small, especially given that she is only woman in the play. She opines “Why do I even bother,” at one point, a feeble piece of writing in the face of Socrates’ intractable nature.
We know how it ends. On charges of impiety, Socrates is put to death (or is it public suicide), aged 70, by drinking hemlock and here we witness every writhing moment. By now, we have been ushered through an intriguing examination of the workings of this ancient democracy and the purpose and perils of sticking to your principles. This is a clever play that will cause debate, but go ready – brush up your Plato in advance.