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A CurtainUp Westchester Review
Unknowns can now be seen at the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, New York in a vivid, strongly acted production directed by Pamela Moller Kareman. It’s a verbally stimulating exercise in artistic voyeurism.
The action takes place in 1992 in the seedy Mexican refuge of ex-patriot and once notable painter, Malcolm Ralpheson (Keith Barber).The atmospheric setting by Jason Bolen is a jumble of whiskey bottles, canvases, paint brushes and a few bits of furniture that would have been refused at a thrift shop.
In the early 1960s, Ralpheson had been a highly touted artist — one of “ten unknowns” — at a time when representational art was still popular. His failure to make it big came with the arrival of abstract impressionism and the emergence of such artists as William de Kooning and Robert Rauchesberg. Stung by rejection he retreated to Mexico where his artistic inspiration and output slowly became “blocked.”
As the play opens Ralpheson is being visited by Trevor Fabricant (Kevin Cristaldi) an exuberant and persistent art dealer originally from South Africa. Fabricant has come to the artist’s lair to try to persuade him to let him take back to the U.S., whatever latest paintings he has done. Fabricant's plan is to stage a retrospective of Ralpheson’s work – promising the artist that the time is ripe for a resurgence of his style. Fabricant had previously arranged for one of his ex-lovers, Judd Burge,ss (Jack Berenholtz), a young, wasted drug user and fledgling artist to join Ralpheson in Mexico as his “assistant.” Burgess is a sardonic presence in the household and has a love-hate relationship with his host/mentor. He and Trevor still have an emotional (sexual) connection.
Into this merry mix comes Julia Bryant (Hannah Wolfe), a young, beautiful college graduate who is in rural Mexico to study a species of frogs, popularly known as the "Jewels of the Night." The frogs are facing extinction and parallel symbolism between the fate of the frogs and the passé artist is obviously intended.
Barber is a mesmerizing Ralpheson. He's a foul mouthed volcano, even though one wonders how the guy could still be so physically intact considering the amount of booze he consumes. His virile persona neatly fits the popular conception of the artist as a lover. His waltzing around the lovely, too-young-for-him, student is both touching and romantic.
Cristaldi masters a South African accent nicely and gives a slightly unsettling performance as a man who has lost track of himself in the pursuit of success.In a generally subdued, but intense performance, Berenholtz, contributes an enigmatic aura that is gradually substantiated by the revelation behind Judd’s volatile collaboration with Ralpheson.
Wolfe does as well as one can with a part that seems more contrivance than believable. A beautiful actress, (she looks a lot like the young Elizabeth Taylor and hey, that’s not bad!) and she has grace and poise as well. Her scenes are well done and a nice balance to the venom and cursing of her newly made male acquaintances. There is a mystery underneath all of the posturing and verbal bombast about the true “ownership” of art, but it is best if you discover that for yourself. Suffice to say that all is never what it seems and if things wrap up a bit tidily in the end, at least you will never be bored.
“Is this what conversation is all about?” asks Julia at one point. You bet it is, in the hands of a skilled wordsmith like Baitz. Llisten up!