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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Ten Unknowns
By Laura Hitchcock

Jon Robin Baitz has done considerable delving into Ten Unknowns since it opened at Lincoln Center with Donald Sutherland. (Review of that production). Maybe it's something in the Hollywood air but the version now playing at the Mark Taper forum whose focus is the conflict between artist Malcolm Raphelson and his apprentice Judd Sturgess brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock's dictum that the creative work of his films lay in the story boarding. He had very little interest in their execution, the directing itself.

Malcolm, heralded as one of 1962's ten unknown painters expected to gain world recognition, dropped out when the artistic taste market veered from his figurative style to abstract impressionism. Now he lives in a primitive atelier in Oaxaca, Mexico, gleefully fending off the New York agent Trevor Fabricant, who wants to mount a retrospective of the paintings Malcolm has been keeping to himself for the past 30 years. Trevor has sent his lover Judd, a blocked artist with a heroin habit, to be a sort of sorcerer's apprentice to Malcolm and, not incidentally, to be sure Malcolm delivers the paintings Trevor has already sold for serious money.

Into this competitive mix comes Julia, a biologist from Berkeley, whose research into a disappearing breed of frogs reveals their destruction from the bass stocked for tourists by the escalating hotel industry. "A smart sexy American girl who doesn't have to be nice," says Malcolm approvingly. She's all that, though not as complex as Baitz's men.

Act I features some of Baitz's best writing ever. Deep, smart, funny, with a curtain whose impact is breathtaking. You won't be surprised to hear that its question is who painted Malcolm's pictures and that the real question is do you buy Alfred Hitchcock's definition of creativity.

Act II worries those questions, but here Baitz moves on from art to relationships, which is where he was going all along. What Judd gets from Malcolm, why it isn't enough and what to do about it. What the play may lack in surprises and an Act II curtain with the power of Act I's is compensated for by the pleasure of Baitz circling his people and their art, snapping word pictures, pinning them down with epigrams, following them laughing all the way as they flutter away from him like William Blake's bliss, then going in after them.

Dominating the stage like a force of nature is Stacy Keach who makes Malcolm terrifying, terrified and driven by the fierce elemental purity of an artist's concept. You have to remember Jonathan M. Woodward's preppy callow doctor in the HBO version of Wit to appreciate the range he displays here as the angry, needy Judd.

Patrick Breen draws out the humor and reaps the twists Baitz has found in the character of Trevor, and Klea Scott understands what the author means by describing Julia as a "John O'Hara girl", grounding her in those controlled 1940s beauties who bring strong men to heel.

The scenic design by David Jenkins is a dreamy high-ceilinged studio, primitive and warm-toned. Robert Egan, in the last staff directing stint of his remarkable 19 years, has found a final project worthy of his signature, keeping the play fierce, fast and deft. Egan directed one of Baitz's first plays, The Film Society, at the LA Theatre Center. Most of Baitz's plays have been done at the Taper and new ones work-shopped here. Whether first step or last stop, there's a satisfying continuity in following the growth of a home-grown artist, whether playwright or director

Playwright: Jon Robin Baitz
Director: Robert Egan
Cast: Patrick Breen (Trevor Fabricant), Stacy Keach (Malcolm Raphelson), Klea Scott (Julia Bryant), Jonathan M. Woodward (Judd Sturgess)
Set Design: David Jenkins
Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam
Costume Design: Joyce Kim Lee
Paintings by Conor Foy
Sound Design: Jon Gottlieb
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Running Dates: March 15-May 4, 2003
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Ph: (213) 628-2772
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on March 26, 2003.
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