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A CurtainUp Review
The Credeaux Canvas
By Elyse Sommer
If there's anything theater people seem to love more than a play that take a backstage look at their world, it's a play that takes a behind the canvas peek at the art world. Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre proved too small to accommodate all those who wanted to see Ten Unknowns by Jon Robin Baitz, about a successful painter whose fall from favor sent him into seclusion in Mexico. (It will move to Broadway next season). Now the Mitzi Newhouse is host to another play focusing on the art world, John Guare's Chaucer in Rome.
Keith Bunin's The Credeaux Canvas is yet another entry into this sub-genre of plays about painters. Commissioned by Playwrights Horizon and playing at the company's Ann Wilder Theater, it is like Unknowns and Chaucer, a tragi-comedy, and like those plays absorbing if not without fault lines.
The three central characters are, like the author, twenty-something. But unlike Bunin, whose future seems assured with several previously produced plays plus film writing assignments, Jamie (Glenn Howerton), Winston (Lee Pace) and Amelia (Annie Parisse) are drawn to each by the shared need to get off the go-nowhere treadmill of meaningless part-time jobs before youth and its hopes turn to dusty middle age.
Jamie is the most emotionally fragile of the three. He's been hospitalized for an attempted suicide and still suffers from the early loss of his mother and the remarriage of his father, a successful art dealer. Having gravitated to art school but quickly flunked out, Jamie currently works in a real estate office. Amelia, his girl friend is a singer who still spends more time waitressing than singing. Having passed her twenty-fifth birthday she is beginning to understand why her grade school music teacher abandoned her dream of being an opera singer for the security of the classroom. Winston is a painter and Jamie's roommate in an East Village top floor walkup with few amenities but a skylight ideal for painting. Of the three, Winston seems like the one most likely to realize his ambitions. The cluttered work table and easel under the kitchen skylight indicate that his part-time library job has not deterred him from from painting and almost completing a masters degree.
It is Winston's ability to wield a paint brush and his love affair with the work of an obscure French painter named Jean Paul Credeaux that sends these three young people's lives into a dramatic tailspin. And it is Lee Pace, as Winston, who makes The Credeaux Canvas immediately and colorfully burst into life. The freshly minted Juilliard graduate is a marvel of self-consciousness, ebullience and quirkiness that's reminiscent of Mark Rufalo's terrific performance in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth (also about two bright but go-nowhere post-college guys and a girl, and bearing even more kinship to Credeaeux than the previously mentioned plays about artists-- see our review).
The first scene between Winston and Amelia, who's been staying in the apartment several times a week, is priceless. It's mesmerizing to watch and listen to Winston. His voice cracks with excitement as he describes his discovery of Credeaux during a trip to Paris that left him exhilerated even though financially reduced to eating one meal a day. He endears himself to us with his little leaps of enthusiasm. The way he hungrily nibbles from the contents of a box of dry cereal captures his hunger for life. Bunin's gift for humor is clearly in the hands of an actor worth watching.
Happily, Pace gets superb support from Annie Parisse and Glenn Howerton. The same is true for E. Katherine Kerr who appears in only one scene but is crucial to the plot. As Tess, a former client of Jamie's revcently deceased father, she is this play's Peggy Guggenheim-like art patron. (Those who saw the film Pollock will be reminded of Guggenheim's visit to that artist's studio in Credeux's third scene). It is a meeting with Tess after his unnurturing father has disinherited him, that inspires Jamie to concoct the hoax that leads to not one but two climaxes.
Bunin writes some terrific dialogue for all four characters and director Michael Mayer propels the story forward without a dull moment. The always excellent Derek McLane has created an apartment that anyone who's ever huffed and puffed their way up to one of these non-luxury digs will recognize. If you examine some of the details closely you may, as I did, see the tiny Renoir and large poster by a famous French photographer Robert Donisneau as visual touches that seem to point to the absence of Winston's own work and his affinity for reproductions.
The evolution of the hoax from idea to canvas is as well done as the first. It also features one of the longest and least gratuitous double nude scenes you're likely to see in a while. Things continue to go well through the first half of the second act. It's only after the hoax sets off its various explosions and we fast forward four years past the main events to a second climax that there's a letdown. The outcome of the triangular relationship takes a somewhat too operatic and too self-analytical turn. The result is an end that fails to live up to its beginning and middle. Still, when you consider that neither of the previously mentioned art-connected plays of pros like Jon Robin Baitz or John Guare are flawless (I'm basing this remark on my viewing of Guare's play at an out-of-town premiere), the shortcomings of The Credeaux Canvas are easy to overlook in the light of its pleasures and the anticipation of seeing Mr. Bunin fine tune his craft in the future.