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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But while Rothko is well known, that's less likely to be the case for Rudolf Bauer (1989-1953); that is, unless you saw the recent PBS documentary Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolf Bauer on WNET-Thirteen. Yet, during the 1930s in his native Germany Bauer was hailed as the next Wassily Kandinsky and art historians recognize his influence on the establishment of the Guggenheim Museum and on modernists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. He nevertheless died a mostly forgotten artist.
Lauren Gunderson's play Bauer now having its New York premiere at 59E59's Theater "A" was inspired by the above mentioned documentary. But Gunderson, who's become one of San Francisco's busiest playwrights, has used the film's facts as a jumping off point for her own take on Bauer's story. Not that she doesn't cover is career in the forefront of the avante-garde, his condemnation and incarceration by the Nazis as one of its detested "Degenerate" artists, the escape to the U.S. with the help of his aristocratic girl friend and copper tycoon Solomon Guggenheim.
But being a playwright not an art historian, Ms. Gunderson is less interested in Bauer's art than why he stopped making it. After all, he was a man for whom to live was to paint, even in a Gestapo prison when scraps of paper and pencils traded for cigarettes had to serve as canvas and brushes. To explore the psychological drama that compelled him to virtually pull the plug on everything that was meaningful to him, Gunderson created an imaginary meeting between the artist, his wife and the woman he feels betrayed his trust.
The time is winter 1953. The setting is the New Jersey seaside home of the 62-year-old reclusive and retired from painting Rudolf and his 50-year-old wife and former maid.
That lonely house was quite a mansion. The tensely anticipated fictional meeting with Hilla von Rebay could have taken place in any of two dozen rooms, but Rudolf insists that only his unused, dust-coverd studio will do. This enables Bill English, the play's director and designer, to transform the theater's small stage into a wonderfully evocative and dramatic single set. The windows give lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger a chance to let some sunlight in to lighten the gloomy atmosphere. The bare walls allow projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz to add some eye-popping images of Bauer's paintings, including a final visual surprise.
By the time Hilla arrives we know that the man before us has sacrificed his life's passion for what he believes to be his artistic soul. We also know that his wife is determined not to allow his bitterness to crush his already fragile physical and emotional well-being — even though it means welcoming the woman she knows Rudolf loved more passionately than her.
As soon as she comes onstage, it's clear that, though she's only a couple of years younger than Bauer, Hilla is still and elegant and formidable presence. (Bravo to costumer Abra Berman for the women's sharply contrasting outfits).
Gunderson's script covers the personal as well as political elements that determine the course of these characters' lives. All three are fully developed for the actors to give emotionally vibrant and layered performances. The two women, who are new to me, also appeared in the original San Francisco production have probably deepened and enriched their roles. Both are excellent, with Ross dominating as the sublimely imperious, awesomely ambitious and often funny Hilla.
Sherman Howard, who is less of a stranger to New York audiences, has taken on the title character's role and does so with considerable sensitivity. He beautifully captures the pained hesitancy and anxiety in the his non-verbal opening moments. He breaks our heart when he unleashes the despair of a man who's shut himself down for too many years.
The dialogue Gunderson has written for this trio to unleash years of regrets and frustrations is stuffed with wry, witty word play. When Hilla sees Louise's hospitality as being "out to get her" and Bauer says she's just trying to be civil, Hilla counters with "Life's too short"for civility. Let's all say what we mean instead."" Even the depressed Rudolf hasn't lost his sense of humor as when he wonders about how anyone can hang a painting on a curved wall such as the one designed for the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Smart and revealing as all these interchanges are, these type of conversational dramas do tend to get bogged down in too much talk, and a few nips and tucks in Bauer's mid-section would not have been remiss. Still, this is an enjoyable and enlightening look at a largely unfamiliar chapter of contemporary art history.