You, Nero is an at times hilarious comedy, so wacky and so focused on the decadent emperor that it’s easy to miss it’s aimed at serious matters.  The setting is Rome, 64 AD.  Scribonius, a “serious playwright” (much humor derived from contemporary hip lingo applied to the past) is conscripted by Nero to write a play to shine up the wicked emperor’s image.  Ah, but Scribonius is an idealist, imbued with the view — harking back to the Greeks — that theater should educate and uplift.

The viperous web of Nero’s circle wastes no time in seducing him.  Poppaea, Nero’s wife, gets to him with sexual pleasures he’d only imagined (what do they do?).  Worse, yielding to the Emperor’s flattery — and power over life, death and torture — Scribonius sets about writing a Nero-pleasing play, his conscience yielding to rationalizations conveniently provided by the philosopher Seneca.  Through his art, Scribonius will make Nero a better man.

First try:  he’ll write a play that shows Nero as virtuous, and so lead the emperor to virtue.  But that doesn’t please feckless, narcissistic Nero, for reasons not clear to me but with lots of laughs derived from the impulsive and cruel antics and responses of the childish, sexually ambidextrous and all-powerful emperor, wonderfully played by Danny Scheie.  Scribonius tries another tack, digging deep to bring out the Emperor’s essential human innocence in an extremely interesting sequence because it almost makes you believe in it — a stretch, though, since in the course of the play, Nero castrates his sex toy, Fabiolo, to keep him boyish and murders his own mother and he will, in due course, play the violin — his art — as Rome burns.

Act I relies too much on “we’re on our way to Caesar’s Palace” type jokes and, when those waver, slapstick — not everyone stayed for Act II.  Too bad, because in Act II when the comedy gets serious, genuine wit emerges and by the end, so much has been deeply funny, ironic, and worth thinking about, it’s hard to remember dull Act I.

Scribonius is castrated as an artist as Fabiolo is physically — at least he never comes up with a play that pleases the Emperor, and we’re left thinking he won’t be writing any more plays.  But though he’s responded in oh so human ways to seduction and intimidation — his conflicts humorously and wisely conveyed by Jeff McCarthy — he’s not corrupt.  He’s failed to improve Nero’s character through his art, and Rome does catch fire during a zany bread-and-circuses rock concert, but the now wiser Scribonius hopes and imagines that sometime in the future — with the advent of Amy Freed? — the moral, educative purposes of theater will re-emerge.  In maintaining his vision, Scribonius persuades us of the existence of the essential human innocence that he couldn’t find in the Emperor.

But can art really improve anyone?  We are left to wonder.

You, Nero plays at the Berkeley Rep Theatre, Berkeley, California, through June 28.

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