Diary Product

Though not wholly specious, Ten Unknowns is much too busy contriving glibly effective scenes to come to grips with its material. The hero's excuse for exile is nonsense; as the exceptionally informative current issue of Lincoln Center Theater Review points out, figurative painting never wholly disappeared—even an Abstract Expressionist like de Kooning sometimes practiced it. If Baitz's Malcolm Raphelson couldn't survive on the same terms as Phillip Pearlstein, Alice Neel, or Fairfield Porter, either he wasn't any good to start with, in which case the play loses its point, or the inner torment blocking him has only gotten worse, in which case no drama can be expected from it. Indeed, though there are a number of unsurprising surprises, visible well in advance, and a tantrum or two to make the actors earn their wages, nothing happens onstage. A simulacrum of a play, Ten Unknowns looks and sounds like drama; it appears to have characters, a conflict, and a sequence of events. But none of these turns out to matter very much or convey much sense of life.

The script's pallor has even affected the four excellent actors, whose work is good in inverse proportion to the length of their roles. Julianna Margulies is fresh and appealing as the frogless zoologist, while Denis O'Hare's art dealer is a matchless cyclone of insecure hyper-efficiency. But Justin Kirk, as the club kid turned neo-figurativist, does his usual deadpan wiseass, and Donald Sutherland embodies the old painter with disappointingly perfunctory competence, heightened only by a generalized sense of regret; maybe he thinks as little of the script as I do.


George Bartenieff as Victor Klemperer: witness for the persecution
photo: Dixie Sheridan
George Bartenieff as Victor Klemperer: witness for the persecution

Details

I Will Bear Witness
Adapted by George Bartenieff and Karen Malpede from the diaries of Victor Klemperer, translated by Martin Chalmers
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street 212-677-4210

Ten Unknowns
By Jon Robin Baitz
Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

The Good Thief
By Conor McPherson
Jose Quintero Theatre
534 West 42nd Street 212-560-7284

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Brian d'Arcy James and I clearly don't agree about the script of Conor McPherson's monologue The Good Thief. He performs it with glowing devotion, rushing into its recitation of beatings and betrayals with a grinning headlong eagerness, and a painterly relish for the dirty details, that makes me feel abashed for having any reservations at all. But I don't understand two basic things: what McPherson thought was so important in this story of a hired thug out-thugged by his rivals, and why he thought narration by its hero—who might be but isn't transformed by the experience—was a better way to tell it than, say, a TV movie of the week, which, barring the violence, is what it most resembles. I know there's an Irish tradition of storytelling; there's a tradition in drama criticism of complaining when the stories have no substance. Thanks to d'Arcy James, McPherson gets to share in that other Irish tradition—charmingly versatile actors rescuing mediocre texts.

A tribute to the late Lyn Austin, founder of the Music-Theatre Group, will be held March 19 at 4 p.m., at the Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street.


Michael Feingold's review of Conor McPherson's "The Weir."
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