There’s a thrilling close to the first half of Jon Robin
Baitz’s new play Ten Unknowns at
Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre when a huge blank canvas seems to fill
the floor of the stage. The 72-year-old painter Malcolm Raphelson, a burnt-out
case, hovers over it poised to paint a portrait of his mother, as Judd, his
young, druggy assistant and fellow artist, looks over his shoulder.
“Christ! You’re right over me, goddamnit!” Raphelson
explodes. “You’re like some fucking vulture boy!”
Mr. Baitz’s bitter point-or Raphelson’s-is that the younger
generation of artists always feeds off the old like vultures, wiping out
reputations along the way. Fate, or self-destruction, turns the hard-drinking
Raphelson into an extinct species. But those intense and even frightening
moments between the artist and the canvas are immensely moving. Mr. Baitz and
all artists must surely know Raphelson’s feeling of impotence and prayer. The
empty canvas, like the empty space of a stage, will either live or die.
So Raphelson (in a very fine performance from the
silver-haired Donald Sutherland) confronts the wrecked image of himself in the
terrors of bringing the canvas to imagined life and meaning and beauty. He’s
been living in isolated exile in Mexico for 28 years, a figurative painter who
fled the tidal wave of abstract expressionism and seems to have been wasting
away ever since.
“Abstract expressionism,” Raphelson says scornfully. “All you
had to do was make a little jump, a little child’s leap, into shit-shaped
daubings and mealy-mouthed little splotches and batches of half-baked color,
you’d win a prize-you’d win a Crackerjack prize! And you had to do it, or you were out! You were expelled!”
Any man who announces, as Raphelson does, how hard he’s
worked “not to be bitter” has already been consumed by bitterness. But when a
South African–born New York art dealer, Trevor Fabricant (the witheringly venal
and amusing Denis O’Hare), turns up to rediscover him for a major
retrospective, he’s met by surprising indifference.
“Take some pleasure
in it. Trust it,” craven Fabricant
argues for celebrity and fame (and himself). “Sometimes buying things-art or a
cashmere sweater or … sex, say-makes it all the more real. The money going out;
comfort comes in.”
Judd (well-played by Justin Kirk) is the edgy, conflicted
assistant and potential rival who’s described as “sort of smart, and spoilt,
and coasting.” In truth, he’s self-destructing as much as Raphelson. He’s been
sent along to Mexico by Fabricant, his former boyfriend, to get Raphelson
painting again. “Calm down,” he says coolly to his hyperventilating ex-lover.
“Nobody hates you. Even though it would be so easy.”
Mr. Baitz’s articulate defense of certain musty old values
in the teeth of phony culture has been a strength of his since the early days
of Substance of Fire . Ten Unknowns continues the righteous
battle for standards with its theme about the merchandising of art and the
bitter romance-perhaps it’s a necessity-of dropping out. He has much to say,
too, about the corrosive nature of envy and failure, about empty shells lost in
the wilderness or unfashionable artists exiled from themselves in depression
My disappointment in the piece, alas, stems from the
reluctant feeling that he’s got much, much more
to say. This first-rate ensemble production directed by Daniel Sullivan, with
its messily authentic, lived-in artist’s refuge by set designer Ralph
Funicello, is ultimately more atmospheric than meaty. Mr. Baitz is making a
plodding symbolic point with the introduction of Julia, a beautiful Berkeley
graduate student who’s earnestly researching a species of potentially extinct
glass frog, if you please. The Tennessee Williams symbolism thuds the more when
Mr. Baitz goes on to explain it.
The quickening of Donald Sutherland’s Raphelson-the new
spring in his defeated, ambling walk-when Julianna Margulies’ Julia enters the
action is understandable. “Never too late to be poleaxed,” he says enthusiastically.
But Julia is a little too convenient. The flaws and faux mystery of the second
act become transparent, the redemptive resolution is too neatly tied in a
pretty bow. It’s more likely that the disillusioned Judd, who flees his fake
hero to bury himself on a heroin trip, would never have returned, and that
Raphelson, the empty shell, would have been left plastered on tequila, or
swimming with the glass frogs.
Why the need for a happy end (sort of)? Ten Unknowns , which is partly about artistic compromise, surely has
no need of one. David Auburn’s otherwise refined Proof risks self-aborting by having one. And Kenneth Lonergan, of
all complicated humane people, has one in Lobby
Hero , too. The happy end, sort of, is the thinking man’s answer to the beer
commercial. It’s happy, but ….
I’ve no wish to add to Mr. Lonergan’s woes in the week he
should have walked off with the Oscar for You
Can Count on Me . Besides, many people have the highest regard for his new
play Lobby Hero , directed by Mark
Brokaw at Playwrights Horizons. Only Mr. Lonergan would set a play and a hero in a lobby -and, at that, the lobby of an apartment building in Manhattan
that looks depressingly like my own, what with the wilting rubber plant and
all. I don’t want to spend the night in my own lobby. But this is unfair to the
more generous Mr. Lonergan, who takes comfort in the weirdness of strangers
more or less anywhere.
The dramatist isn’t driven by plot, however, but character.
His people ramble in their own appealing fashion, and we are glad. “Are you a
sports fan?” Jeff asks Dawn, the rookie cop who’s waiting in the lobby for her
partner to finish a quickie with a girlfriend upstairs. “Come on. That’s a
harmless question. What do you like, basketball? A lot of girls like basketball.
It’s graceful. Well, a lot of sports are very graceful, actually …. What’s your
feeling about the impending garbage strike? My name’s Jeff. Twenty-seven, never
been married, never been in debt. Well, I have been in some debt actually, but
that’s pretty much all cleared up now. I’m a different person now. Really. I’ve
turned over a new leaf.”
“Would you shut up?” says Dawn.
But in Mr. Lonergan’s cause of recreating real, apparently
mundane life, he’s skirting the danger of creating the kind of quirky outsiders
who are fast turning into “The Lonergan Type.” In Lobby Hero , it’s the young, jokey loser Jeff, the lobby security
guard who must come to terms with himself. There’s his black supervisor,
William, a stickler for rules who has to break the rules to get his brother off
a murder rap; the policeman and stud, Bill, who’s both good cop and bad cop;
and Bill’s rookie partner, the attractive Dawn, who’s naïve and vulnerable (but
For all its appeal and humanenesss, Lobby Hero seems overworked, overworried in a sense. The dramas-a
murder, a beating, an investigation-take place offstage. They have to. We’re
stuck in the lobby . It’s a static
piece with an old-fashioned giveaway. (Jeff clumsily gives a big secret away.)
But the play revolves round an interesting moral dilemma-lying in a good cause.
With Mr. Lonergan, all is never as simple as it seems and the good cause might
be yourself, your love life, your job or justice. Or getting the girl. Will
Jeff and Dawn end up happily ever after? Yes, but ….