Most misfires at least bear traces of what they were aiming at. But it's hard to discern the intention, good or ill, behind Robert Kornfeld's shrug-worthy new bio-play "The Art of Love," in an unfailingly stiff and awkward premiere production at Theater for the New City. The playwright may be fascinated with Roman history and its instructive resonances with our own imperial age; he may be an avid Ovid fan paying respects to the great turn-of-the-millennium poet who penned the epic "Metamorphoses" and the pickup guide "Ars Amatoria."
But if Kornfeld is fired up about these subjects, or any subjects at all, you wouldn't know it from "The Art of Love," which comes off as the sort of tedious toga drama one might stumble across in the wee hours on cable TV, often featuring badly dubbed dialogue and over-the-hill actors showing more leg than they can get away with.
Here the dialogue is all in English, although the cast has such low energy and undistinguished diction that we would appreciate subtitles. The costumes, by Carolyn Adams, are a uniformly unflattering mix of earth tones and anachronisms, but none is as unfortunate as the frumpy number - part nightshirt, part miniskirt - worn throughout by our versifying hero, the 50-something Ovid (James Nugent). Suffice to say, there is no safe place to direct our gaze when this purported Casanova tepidly grapples with his wife, Fastina (Laura Lockwood).
The play opens with Ovid in exile on a remote shore of the Black Sea, striving fussily to put on an amateur "theatrical" with and for the ignorant yokels. Where are his steam pots and lighting effects, he wants to know, and has anyone seen the deus ex machina? Once it gets going, this play-within-a-play device gives way to a plodding promenade of flashbacks to Ovid's days in Rome, when he sparred with Emperor Augustus (Tom Thornton) over literature and public morals and witnessed the palace intrigues of Livia (Dawn Jamieson) and her son Tiberius (Stephen Francis).
Much of this material has been well and better trod elsewhere (by, for starters, Robert Graves' "I, Claudius" and by HBO's recent "Rome" miniseries). When he's not rehearsing these machinations, Kornfeld is stacking arguments: first into Ovid's meandering dialogues with the increasingly oppressive and irrational Augustus, then into an overheated debate with a former colleague (Doug Stone) over the fate of the Roman republic. Kornfeld's insights, roughly stated, are that art and politics make uncomfortable bedfellows, but their collision is inevitable.
Rarely has the purported crash of poetry and policy looked so tame or lame. Maybe that's because it's hard to take seriously an emperor who wears a sparkly purple tunic, or who decides to bus a tray of food in the midst of a thundering decree of banishment. Maybe it's difficult to admire a poet who suggests an epitaph like "a man called Ovid, who had a certain way with words."
Thornton, who has directed the show in the same drawn-out way he delivers his lines, must bear a great deal of the blame for the evening's unintentionally campy feel. But the root problem is Kornfeld's own uncertain way with words. His "Art of Love" has too little of either.
THE ART OF LOVE. By Robert Kornfeld. Directed by Tom Thornton. Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., Manhattan. Through Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $10. Call 212-254-1109. Seen Thursday.