Daily, my 12th-grade English teacher would harangue us with the mantra, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” She told us the line came from teacher and thinker Socrates, who used questioning as a method to get to the heart of any matter. What she neglected to tell us is that the examined life ain’t so wonderful, either, and it can sometimes get you killed.
What Tim Blake Nelson’s drama Socrates –now in an extended run at the Public Theater –gets grippingly right, is demonstrating how a smart and respected, if stubborn, man, who simply asks probing questions, can so rankle his admirers that they turn on him and use the state’s political machinery to destroy him. The play is replete with “Socratic” dialogues, in which we see the master’s ever-hungry intellect at work. Bearded, shlubby and jovial until he’s intractable, Socrates (Michael Stuhlbarg) asks a seemingly obvious question that his opponent is then forced to answer. Then come the relentless syllogisms (i.e., if this is so, then must that be so?) until the other arguer must acknowledge the shaky ground on which his belief system stands.
Heady stuff – literally and figuratively – and as long as Socrates the play focuses on Socrates the braniac, we remain as drawn to the character as his best friend Plato (Teagle F. Bougere), who frames the narrative by explaining to a Socratic acolyte why their mutual idol had to be sacrificed. Where the excessively long drama falters is in dwelling on the mundane aspects of Socrates' life (distracted husband and father, human with earthy appetites) without making them compelling. Thus we get an opening comical debate about the teacher’s assumed bisexuality and presumed predilection for young boys, but this has little bearing on his later trial or even the arc of his relationships with followers and enemies. Miriam X. Hyman, as wife Xanthippe, has one nondescript scene in act one and yet must carry a huge emotional aria about their marriage later on. And director Doug Hughes chooses to stage Socrates’s death in seemingly real time, drawing out the play’s last half hour with a ritual bath and poisoning that add long minutes to the finale but no weight to the drama. (I compare this to David Rabe’s 1997 play A Question of Mercy, which showed the step-by-step preparation and enactment of an intentional overdose. That piece, however, was aboutthe ramifications of assisted suicide, so the scene felt both agonizing and justified.)
All this extra baggage ultimately turns a stimulating and politically relevant work into something dutiful, enervated. Not helping is Scott Pask’s monolithic set of amber stones with Greek writing on them, soothingly lit by Tyler Micoleau. There’s little for the eye to fix upon when the dialogue gets sloggy, and no physical representation of earthiness and grit – which would be more appropriate considering the behavior of Socrates’ fellow citizens.
Nonetheless, and despite an overreliance on shouting to get his biggest moments across, Stuhlbarg makes for a zestful educator. So long as the play sticks to this thickset gadfly’s inquiring mind, its entertainment value goes without question.
Socrates runs through June 2, 2019 at off-Broadway’s Public Theater.