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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Mr. Baitz, a playwright known for intelligent plays filled with witty observations, has come up with a play that bears more than a little resemblance to his best and breakthrough work, The Substance of Fire, in that both pit angry older men defending their perspective on their creative endeavors. As the publisher in Substance defended his literary enterprise against the assault of bottom line oriented relatives, so Malcolm still fumes about the "thieves market of abstraction" that put his figurative paintings into the twilight zone of unmarketability. His life since has been filled with mescal and bereft of companioship, though a recent spurt of creative energy has yielded ten new paintings in the figurative style that the 1990s art world seems willing to embrace once more..
With Donald Sutherland, a fifty-year veteran of stage and screen, as this angry old man, Mr. Baitz's main character is in the hands of a master practitioner of the acting craft. Looking and acting like a charismatic and genial Santa Claus, his anger simmers more than it boils but there's no mistaking it. Malcolm's far from the mainstream studio is a perfect lair for the hard-drinking artist to grapple with a late in life opportunity to reclaim his unrealized artistic career. This Mexican hideaway is rendered with a nice rustic touch and all the messy acoutrements of an atelier by set designer Ralph Funicello, complete with skylight and doorway to let Pat Collin's subtle evocation of Mexican rainstorms and sunshine stream in.
Of the three young people who turn the hermit's studio into a lively forum for debate (about the debasement of culture) and confrontation (credit given and withheld for creative assistance), two are gay men from the 1990s Wooster Street art scene -- Malcolm's mercenary South African expatriate dealer Trevor Fabricant (Denis O'Hare) and Judd. Trevor shipped Judd, (who's his boyfriend) to Mexico to get him off drugs but mainly to help Malcolm turn out the new work the dealer needs to add "the vitality of the present" to a retrospective for which he feels the time is ripe. It is the struggle by Trevor to persuade Malcolm to give him some of his new work and put on that 1949-1992 show that constitutes the events that propel the story line. That story line, typical of other Baitz plays, relies more on character revelations than action, though those revelations contain as many surprises as any mystery plot.
The play's only woman and catalyst for the various explosions between Malcolm and Judd is Julia Bryant (Julianna Margulies). A biology student from Berkeley, she's having a hard time adjusting to the meager digs she lives in while doing a graduate assignment on what appears to be a dinosaur species of frogs (a not hard to spot analogy to the out of fashion artist). As Judd seems to have aroused Malcolm's creativity, so the naive freshness of Julia reminds Malcolm of " an O'Hara girl" and stirs memories of sexual vitality. The reference to a character type from the now largely forgotten novelist John O'Hara typifies Baitz's gift for spicing his dialogue with period perfect allusions. (Art buffs will especially appreciate the skewering of the Whitney Biennial and Julian Schnabel's broken plate paintings, and the irony of Malcolm painting with broom-length brushes on canvases laid out on the floor as were those of one of his bête noires the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock).
While Sutherland is the star of the enterprise, the three younger actors are brilliant satellites, each making the most of the smart and often funny dialogue the playwright has given them. In fact it is the pitch perfect interaction between Sutherland and the three actors that make Ten Unknowns a real theatrical treat -- a play crackling with penetrating exchanges, moral questions that transcend the story at hand but without sacrificing entertainment to morality issues.
Justin Kirk drips sarcasm but also lets us see the inner turmoil that has prevented him from working on his own art but make him resentful about how his talent is being used by Malcolm. Denis O'Hare is unforgettable as the glib art dealer, who, when he realizes he has overstepped his boundaries, can turn painfully and desperately apologetic. His South African accent is an achievement in and of itself. Julianna Margulies, perhaps best known to audiences for her gig on the Emmy nominated series "ER", does very well as the "O'Hara" girl who, like the rest of the audience, is enthralled by the tempo and wit of the conversation at what Judd sarcastically refers to as the "casa del art" but later declares "I don't know how you artists live with all this feeling -- it's completely uneconomical."
The plot evolves from an almost party-like mood at the beginning, with Trevor flying in from New York to coax Malcolm into cooperatng with his plan for the New York comeback exhibit. Julia's arrival continues the party feeling, but not for long. It becomes clear that something is going on between Malcolm and Judd and that something builds towards a first act conclusion that packs an emotional wallop that's hard to top. To say more would spoil the impact for readers who have yet to see the play. Though, that first act's final scene is the play's pinnacle, Baitz continues to paint a vivid picture of four people (yes, even the naive seeming Julia has her own demons!) caught in the web of their weaknesses and contradictions. The scene when Malcolm, at Julia's urging, sits down to sketch her but can't, provides another unforgettable image.
Ten Unknowns does leaves a few loose ends. For example, how has Malcolm kept himself in paints, brushes and mescal all these years? There are also occasional lapses into the stereotypical and some of the arguments about the commercialization of culture are not earthshakingly new. None of this is worth fussing over in the light of the pleasures of a play this well written, acted and staged. With Contact still in residence at Lincoln Center's larger Vivian Beaumont theater, Ten Unknowns is completely sold out for its limited run at the smaller stage. Even if the run isn't extended, it's safe to predict that it will have a life after the Mitzi Newhouse.
Since giving credit for creative work is very much part of this play, bravo to Daniel Adel, the man who created the paintings displayed on stage.