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THEATER REVIEW: “Divine Rivalry” pits Michelangelo vs. da Vinci

Spending a couple of hours in the company of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci is my idea of heaven.

And I’d pay more than a few shekels to watch Machiavelli (yes, that one, before “The Prince”) manipulating both of those artists and his boss Piero Soderini, head of the Republic of Florence.

What a quartet! Two artists who have nothing good to say about each other, the man who understood political power better than anyone and the ruler of Florence. These are the elements of a fascinating theatrical pas de quatre.

The Old Globe offers the chance to watch the fireworks in the West Coast premiere of Michael Kramer and D.S. Moynihan’s “Divine Rivalry” through Aug. 5, with Michael Wilson directing.

The setup alone is delicious – and the story is true: In 1504, due in part to Machiavelli’s doing, the two Florentine geniuses were each commissioned to paint a wall of the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florence’s government. They were to work “in competition” (meant to inspire them to greater artistic heights). They were given six months; neither finished, and the walls were later painted by a much lesser artist named Vasari, whose work still stands.

Leonardo (Miles Anderson) and Michelangelo (Euan Morton) were men with definite opinions (about art and each other), and here they are in turns irascible, petulant, egotistical, petty and infuriating. They may or may not have actually hated each other, but they were neither of them stingy with the stinging remark.

Kramer operates on the theory that real animosity existed and takes pains to keep them apart as much as possible, which may be one reason the piece seems more academic and less theatrical than it might: part of the fun is in the mutual snarking, especially when it’s face-to-face.

Kramer’s expertise is politics: This first-time playwright has been a political columnist for years for New York, Time and U.S. News & World Report magazines, among others.

So it’s not surprising that he chose to introduce Machiavelli (Sean Lyons), who comes across as both clever opportunist and first-rate manipulator. He’d have been right at home in today’s political climate.

The dramatic problem for Kramer is that he’s set up the artistic competition as the centerpiece, when the outcome affected neither artist. In fact, he suggests that the only one who suffered at all from it was Machiavelli, for yet another scheme that went awry.

The play might work better dramatically if Machiavelli were the central figure and the artists as peripheral characters.

That said, this is a handsome piece of stage work, with Jeff Cowie’s fine set design enhanced by Peter Nigrini’s handsome projections setting style, place and time. David C. Woolard contributes fitting costumes; John Gromada’s original music sets the mood and Robert Wierzel’s most effective lighting contributes to the atmosphere.

The only drawback is a stage-left dead spot that makes comprehension of the dialogue difficult.

Anderson’s Leonardo is free-wheeling, self-confident seeker almost more interested in his inventions than his art (he is found trying out a pair of wings in one scene). A bit of a Renaissance hippie, he was just as likely to abandon a project in the middle as to finish it.

Morton’s Michelangelo (22 years younger than Leonardo) was a different breed of cat, more religious, as interested in sculpture as in painting, a bit whiny and hungry for fame.

David Selby has the nearly thankless task of playing Soderini, the “boss” of Florence who spends most of this play trying to keep Machiavelli in line. Selby presents a man at once fascinated by and a bit fearful of this upstart (Machiavelli was about 35 at this time) with his own ideas about how to save Florence from future invasion or take-over.

Lyons looks lean and hungry enough, but also about half the age Machiavelli is supposed to be. Small wonder that Kramer gives Soderini the clunky line, “Now, don’t try to manipulate me!”

“The Divine Rivalry” looks great but doesn’t quite work yet dramatically. I hope Kramer continues to work on it; these are some of history’s most fascinating characters.

The details

“Divine Rivalry” plays through Aug. 5 at The Old Globe’s Donald & Darlene Shirley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets, call 619-234-5623 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.