The play, which officially opens May 19 at New York Theatre Workshop, is set in 2003, about the time Michelangelo's masterful statue was being restored for its 500th anniversary. The woman who completed the task in 2004 was Cinzia Parnigoni, an Italian whose resume included work on Michelangelo's Prisoners sculptures. Shear re-imagines Parnigoni as Giulia, a dedicated but uncelebrated art restorer from Brooklyn.
Shear's own fascination with the statue is very real. A two-time Tony Award nominee in 2000 for writing and starring in the Mae West meditation, Dirty Blonde, she studied art history in Italy as a college student. Restoration was inspired by an article she read in 2004 about the David's touch-up.
Six months of research before the play's initial run at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 included meeting Parnigoni and making three visits to the statue's home at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. "Going to the Accademia at dawn, being there by myself with the David until the cleaning lady came in — it might not seem like anything to anyone else, but for me, personally, [it was] the pinnacle," Shear said after a recent rehearsal.
"It's like when you're obsessed with the theatre [and you get] to go backstage. For someone else, it might seem like a messy bunch of hallways. But if you're in love with the theatre, a backstage is like magic land, isn't it? I mean, that first time you see the backstage of a professional theatre, it's like, 'Oh, my God!' It's like wonderland."
The line between real life and the stage has been blurred further since Shear is again starring in her own play, as she did in Dirty Blonde and Blown Sideways Through Life, her Obie Award-winning series of monologues about her real-life job experiences. Giulia is a decidedly unglamorous, testy woman who is obsessed with art from generations ago but has trouble connecting to living humans, from the PR people who force her to be more public about her work than she wishes, to Max, a friendly and somewhat flirtatious museum guard (played by Jonathan Cake).
Shear says, "I'm not defended like Giulia. She doesn't like to touch people, she doesn't like to be touched. I'm a hugger and a kisser and a lover … I have great friends and [a] great husband, and I'm very connected, but I can understand who she is. I mean, there are certainly moments in my life where I have been [like] that."
Shear does admit a few similarities to her character: "I'm confrontational, I enjoy conflict — I'm not afraid of anyone, and I am certainly abrasive and unpleasant. But everything else, no. I've lived a much more twinkly, romantical, laugh-y life — a lot more champagne and cocktail dresses, believe it or not," she laughs.
Giulia's feelings of passion and awe for the David match Shear's, but they may be differently informed. Shear says about writing the character, "I knew that she would be very affected by being around this perfect [male] beauty … because obviously, if she was very, very beautiful, then I think she would have a different relationship to his beauty. And I wanted [the audience to wonder], who would be the person that [the statue's beauty] would impact on most? … There is something about art — it obviously ages, but it doesn't age the way we age. So if you look at something that is timeless and outlives you, then I think that has to bring to mind your own mortality."
Restoration continues at New York Theatre Workshop through June 13. For more information, visit nytw.org.