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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The stage looks like the Dia Foundation's SoHo Earth Room installation with a skylight. Since Chesapeake is about a performance artist's mission to champion the freedom of art in any form, this seems like a promisingly appropriate setting. But a glance at the Playbill cover and you begin to wonder if what looks like a provocative art installation might in fact be a dog run.
Mark Linn-Baker is a good enough comic actor to ignore the old saw about the dangers of getting yourself cast with a kid or a dog. Besides, he has nothing to worry about. While a Chesapeake Labrador Retriever inspired this play's title and the Playbill cover design, Lucky, the Lab (also known as Rat) is kept barking and growling off stage and ends up being upstaged by Mr. Linn-Baker (here named Kerr as in See Cur run) by means of metamorphosis.
If all this sounds like a tour de force vehicle for the play's star, and a case of art serendipitously imitating life (the brouhaha over New York Mayor's threats to cut off the Brooklyn Museum's funding because of its "Sensation" exhibition hasn't died down yet), it is. Lee Blessing's script does indeed contain some funny and incisive dialogue. Mr. Linn-Baker ably assumes several roles as he relates the story of how he came to his vocation and the unanticipated outcome of his revenge on right-wing senator Therm Pooley (another example of Blessing's penchant for allusionary names) from his home state of Virginia whose political ambitions cost him his NEA grant. Trouble is the individual high spots are not enough to save this over-extended shaggy dog story from being excruciatingly long in coming to it's somewhat otherworldly conclusion.
Like Blessing's previous talkathon of a play, A Walk In the Woods, this monologue goes on and on. Even its more imaginative detours into fantasy can't turn what would probably work best as a New Yorker short story into a satisfying play. Few people who call themselves serious theater goers are likely to argue with the theme -- artists should be subsidized no matter how questionable the artistic value of their work -- but many might wish for a little less one-sidedness and a bit more poking fun at the good guys (the artists) as well as the bad guys (the Strom Thurmonds-- scratch that-- the Therm Pooleys). The scene in which Kerr and his art-illiterate father attend a museum makes a stab at this though like everything about Chesapeake it outlasts its comic momentum.
The direction by the co-founder of Linn-Baker's New York Stage and Film, Max Mayer, keeps the actor moving vigorously all over the dark earth and at one point even sends him half way up the aisle. Given the shirt and baggy pants worn by both Kerr and Lucky and likely to be found in any man's closet, the costume designer credit is something of a mystery. On the other hand, James F. Ingalls' lighting gives Chesapeake some much needed visual impact, creating a small world of shadows that better than anything evokes his hero's world of dreams and nightmares.