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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Old Masters
Living at I Tatti is Bernard Berenson, the highly respected and influential art scholar, his wife Mary who feels considerable guilt for having left her first husband and much-loved children for the charismatic Berenson; and Nicky, Berenson's secretary and mistress. As Berenson, David Bryan Jackson is suitably erudite and mischievous; Jewell Robinson makes his long-suffering wife Mary a character for whom one feels sympathy and Thomasin Savaiano's Nicky is plausible in the part of Berenson's devoted secretary and mistress.
Into this ménage a trois enters Fowles (nicely played by Steven Carpenter), a scout for the devilish art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen. Fowles's success is minimal but the inhabitants of I Tatti are clearly warned about what is to come. Conrad Feininger (who, in real life, is the son and grandson of artists) has a very deep voice that carries much weight. Feininger is equally convincing as Duveen as he is in Duveen's impersonation of Samuel H. Kress.
Duveen would like to sell the painting "The Adoration of the Shepherds," to Andrew Mellon, one of the newly rich American collectors, but a sale depends not on the price but on the attribution. Is the painting by Giorgione or by Titian? Will Mellon buy it? Or will the painting go to the nouveau riche, crass five-and-dime magnate, Samuel Kress. A debate ensues as the two friends/rivals duke it out.
The play is quite "talky" but the issues it addresses —– the authenticity of attribution and the integrity of both the dealer and the scholar — are enlightening, entertaining, and good material for a serious play. As Mary says they were all rogues.
A final note: both Kress and Mellon amassed great fortunes and great art collections, mainly of Italian Renaissance masterpieces. Mellon's collection became the basis of what is now the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, just a few blocks from where The Old Masters is playing. Many paintings once owned by Kress including "The Adoration of the Shepherds," now hang in the National Gallery of Art. It is attributed to Giorgione