Pleasures and Paints

The fascinating perpetrator of this deranged project, played by Jon Tenney in a riveting nightmare flurry of fast talk and hurtling gymnastic moves, is not the hero of Guare's play, more's the pity. In what amounts to a verbally brilliant but maddening game of bait and switch, Guare shifts the focus to another Academy grantee, the painter's colorless pal, an art historian, who turns out to be the grandson of the fame-hungry zookeeper from House of Blue Leavesand his mentally disturbed wife. The art historian, who writes on topics like the depiction of Christ's fingernails in Renaissance painting, is the son of Ronnie Shaughnessy, the zookeeper's AWOL soldier son, whose homemade bomb—designed to make him famous by blowing up the Pope—goes off at the earlier play's climax, killing three people. When art historian Pete's parents show up in Rome, Guare doesn't explain how the brooding, destructive psycho Ronnie of House of Blue Leaves survived to become this play's settled-in, wearily patient Philistine Ron. But their arrival makes the art historian head for the (seven) hills, turning his parental units over to the ex-painter and his curator girlfriend as prime subjects for a new career in conceptual video. What ensues, predictable despite Guare's inventive word-flummery, is a nasty death for the parents, fame for the artist, and a retreat, for the art historian, into sorrowing obscurity.

In Nicholas Martin's varicolored, fleet-footed production, it all happens rapidly, if ornately. Guare has always seen speech as an opportunity for grandstanding, for which the juxtaposition of American artists abroad and a Rome jammed with Holy Year pilgrims gives him boundless, hectic opportunities; some of the best fall to Lee Wilkof, as a Vatican string-puller named Father Shapiro, whose vaudevillian interruptions of the action are as diverting as they are diversionary. (Wilkof also plays, with melancholy dignity, the somber oncologist.) But under the jocose, speechifying fireworks, the mad welter of art-market chitchat and aesthetic epigram and mock-Catholic logic-chopping, the fundamental premises never get established and the story never gets fully told. Why can't the art historian face his parents? Why does the eco-martyr painter suddenly jump at the chance to commit fraud? When such questions arise, Guare digresses, shifting from dialogue into the in-and-out narration technique he began developing in Six Degrees of Separation. The longest of these lapses into storytelling comes at the very end, virtually in lieu of a resolution.

Glenn Howerton (left) and Lee Pace in The Credeaux Canvas: brush to judgment
photo: Joan Marcus
Glenn Howerton (left) and Lee Pace in The Credeaux Canvas: brush to judgment

Details

The Credeaux Canvas
By Keith Bunin
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
279-4200

Chaucer in Rome
By John Guare
Newhouse Theater Lincoln Center
239-6200

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Because it keeps pulling you out of the play's action, the recollection of characters from Blue Leaves, coupled with the constant shifts of dramatic form and focus, stirs up the annoying sense that Guare is working with recycled materials, used more effectively in many of his earlier plays. The glossy celebrity and his earnest, envious, word-slinging buddy are not only Blue Leaves' Billy and Artie but Lydie Breeze's Dan and Joshua, Rich and Famous's Tybalt and Bing. In each of these cases, Guare punishes the successful partner: Artie's son's bomb kills Billy's girlfriend; Joshua murders Dan; Bing accidentally witnesses Tybalt's "marketed" death. In letting his successful artist here get away scot-free, Guare may be learning to accept his own literary eminence, or—by shoving his perplexed, guilt-ridden writer figure further and further into obscurity—he may simply be becoming more cynical. If he could accept the fact that the famous artist and the self-effacing, abashedly starstruck kid from Queens are the same person, he might write a more coherent play.

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