Painter Chuck Close once bemoaned the wishy-washy state of art history and criticism, lamenting that “There’s nothing that tells you why the painting is great…descriptions of a great painting and a lousy painting will very much sound the same.” Washington Stage Guild’s production of The Old Masters proves Close’s point can apply to theater as well, as the play’s promising exploration of ruinous ego and the tumultuous art business swings unpredictably between crackling drama and sluggish chatter.
The play opens at the flashpoint of World War II as renowned art critic Bernard Berenson (“BB”) and his companions bustle around the sleepy Tuscan estate of I Tatti – appointed nicely by scenic designer Carl F. Gudenius. As BB, David Bryan Jackson wears a thick armor of haughty superiority befitting a self-absorbed academic. He lords over his wife Mary and their live-in Italian caretaker Nicky Mariano, treating I Tatti like his own little fiefdom as the country slowly spirals into a fascist dystopia. The three discuss politics, art, finances, and Mary’s failing health in a series of rambling exchanges that quickly runs low on steam. Perhaps it’s just opening night jitters, but the first 25 minutes of the show seem more like random eavesdropping than deliberately-plotted drama.
Thankfully, Edward Fowles soon arrives and wakes up the sleepy estate. As an assertive art house assistant with a stiff upper lip, Stephen Carpenter employs an engaging tone and deftly introduces the central tension over the politics of art certification. Carpenter’s assured, albeit short, performance generates some much needed momentum to the stuttering first act and hints at a growing rift between his employer Joseph Duveen and Berenson.
Fowles seems to rouse the other actors, and their chemistry and delivery begin to click as the first act nears its close. After Fowles’ departure, BB questions his achievements and wonders if he has a soul, in perhaps the most upper crust soul-searching outside of Downton Abbey. As Nicky, bright-eyed Thomasin Savaiano comforts BB and delivers a passionate defense of his artistic genius and cultural impact. This welcome spark carries the play into the second act on a strong current of momentum.
The Old Masters reaches its apex upon the arrival of gruff art dealer Joseph Duveen. Conrad Feininger brings a workmanlike approach to art criticism, which proves a perfect counterpoint to Berenson’s academic style. With ruddy cheeks and and a gravelly voice, Feininger provides the highlight of the show and gets big laughs as he recounts the horror of shopping Renaissance masterpieces to a notoriously cheap American tycoon. Duveen cuts through the polite banter of the first act to the core conflict of the play: the delicate balancing act between financial security and personal integrity. Duveen wants Berenson to revise his opinion on the original artist of a famous painting, in order to make it more attractive for purchase by business magnate Andrew Mellon. Duveen stubbornly refuses to change his mind, and the two men engage in a tense battle of wits that could easily stand as its own one act play.
As their confrontation reaches its emotional conclusion and Duveen takes his leave from the stage, the play reenters murky territory. Mary, played by Helen Hayes winner Jewell Robinson, delivers a stunning dressing-down of her stubborn, prideful husband. Robinson opens a Pandora’s Box of resentments in a gripping moment delivered with veteran poise. However, the whole exchange seems to spring from out of the blue, following the well constructed banter between BB and Duveen. Meanwhile, the Mary-BB argument seems hastily tacked on to deliver some last-minute salvation for BB’s terrible personality and general outlook. The play then closes with a cryptic sequence that hastily throws out rich emotional subtext in favor of a vague statement on the ruin of war.
The Old Masters
Closes February 9, 2013
Washington Stage Guild at
900 Massachusetts Ave. NW
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $50
Thursdays thru Sundays
While Director Laura Giannarelli should be expected to clean up general pacing and line delivery, the play’s lack of cohesion ultimately falls on playwright Simon Gray. Gray consistently aims too wide and loses precious focus. Rather than emphasizing the arresting conflict between Berenson and Duveen, he peppers the play with references to old age, politics, infidelity, self-worth, and other issues that disappear as quickly as they emerged. Gray seems torn between brisk insider banter and miniseries-scale drama; his ambivalence causes the play to comes up short on both counts.
The Old Masters boasts a solid roster of talent and an interesting central conflict, but it falls well short of its potential due to a stuttering first act and disjointed conclusion. With tightened timing, the production could take advantage of its skilled cast and overcome Gray’s indecisive script. Somewhere between the tightly-plotted arguments of Glengarry Glen Ross and the sprawling emotion of Pride and Prejudice, here’s hoping The Old Masters can find its niche.
Note: The artwork in question is The Adoration of the Shepherds which can be seen at the National Gallery of Art.
The Old Masters by Simon Gray . Directed by Laura Giannarelli . Featuring Conrad Feininger, Thomasin Savaiano, David Bryan Jackson, Steven Carpenter, and Jewell Robinson . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Ben Demers.