How funny, just now, that playwrights should be imagining painters as heroes. We live at a time when contemporary painting, like playwriting itself, is a congeries of fragmented movements rattled by decades of chasing after markets, bombarded with questions about its aesthetic validity and function. The great painter people look to as a touchstone of their time seems not only a vanished figure but a vanished concept. But the authors of this week’s unveilings are hip to the problem: One has invented a painter whose work embodies violent self-sacrifice; the other, an artist who functions best while imagining himself as someone else. The first abandons his life-threatening canvases in favor of a video, sacrificing other people’s privacy instead of his own life. The second, during the play’s action, becomes a forger. Not a pretty picture, if my colleagues on the Art page will excuse the expression.
The reluctant forger, the art-school student at the center of Keith Bunin’s The Credeaux Canvas, can’t fairly be called a hero. He doesn’t so much choose his actions as drift into them, propelled by the general flux of life or by an unhelpful push from the roommate with whom he shares a minuscule East Village flat, an even more deeply maladjusted poor-little-rich-boy who’s been kicked out, penniless, by his odious, now deceased father, a gallery owner. Naturally, disinherited Jamie (Glenn Howerton) rants, overdemonstrates, and dreams of attaining his father’s art-world honcho status; inner-directed Winston (Lee Pace) just paints, living in a haze of turpentine fumes on an unvarying diet of ramen noodles and water. Inevitably, the trouble starts when Jamie’s girl, a budding cabaret singer named Amelia (Annie Parisse), admires Winston’s current painting—not an original but a copy, for a school assignment, of a favorite painting, an obscure fauvist masterpiece, by the short-lived and largely unknown Jean-Paul Credeaux. (Bunin, with cunning drips of mock biography, makes this invented figure nearly as vivid and believable as his onstage characters.) Winston’s gift for copying and his emotional identification with the pathetic wastrel Credeaux give Jamie the idea for a scam: He will market, to one of his late father’s less canny clients, a fake Credeaux by Winston—one of the Parisian painter’s lost nudes, to be modeled by Amelia.
That the scheme is headed for disaster, a realm in which Jamie has a lengthy track record, is self-evident, the dramatic question being how and when the disaster will strike. Equally evident is the reverse-oedipal double whammy by which he projects his parental obsession onto the young friends whose talents he claims to be nurturing. The women Credeaux painted were prostitutes; by inviting Amelia to become one, Jamie virtually offers her to Winston. The inevitable happens, in a lusciously staged and written moonlight scene in which both artist and model are nude; the delicacy of Bunin’s writing, and of the performance under Michael Mayer’s direction, makes every moment of it seem fresh, complex, and unexpected.
Almost as good, barring a touch of patness in its inevitability, is the following scene in which the dizzy client—a dazzling cameo by E. Katherine Kerr—turns out to know a good deal more about art and its provenance than Jamie has assumed. Bunin doesn’t attempt glib reversals of our expectations. Instead, he fulfills them in the hardest-earned way, with a detailed and nuanced sense of their underlying truth. Out of a million plays about young aspiring artists, and several million about youngsters getting ensnared in their own scams, The Credeaux Canvas is one of the very few that have seemed real to me on both counts. Once or twice Bunin’s language seems a little too articulate, his details a little too neatly layered in, to match the muddle in his characters’ minds, but that’s my only quibble.
Mayer’s production, too, is virtually seamless, especially enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s sensitive, sculptural lighting. Mayer, whose Broadway productions often feel pushed and overanxious, seems to have a special affinity for youngsters; unforced, unexaggerated, and giving every emotional moment its full weight, this is the best work he’s done since 1998’s Stupid Kids. The three young actors, all new to me, sustain their long, psychologically complex, elaborately worded roles as if one did that sort of thing casually every day. Lee Pace, lanky, acrid-voiced, and arrestingly lurch-rhythmed, makes the painter a hypnotically interesting figure, but Howerton’s top-speed talk and the panic in his eyes at even his giddiest moments are nearly as memorable. Most remarkable of all is Parisse, whose sweet vulnerability and emotional sureness are supported, astonishingly for this day and age, by a speaking voice that actually makes you want to hear her sing.
The painter who becomes a video artist—and a scam artist—in John Guare’s Chaucer in Rome is a far more nebulous character. When we meet him, he’s a grantee of Rome’s American Academy, and has just been rescued from a near-fatal cancer by a grave Italian oncologist. He can’t paint anymore, the doctor explains: The oils he uses contain toxic substances. The painter knows this; his works, picture-postcard views of New Zealand scenes, are meant to commemorate the giant hole in the ozone layer over that country. The toxic additives, supplied by a chemist friend, are intentional, making the paintings lethal if you stay close enough long enough.
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 Leaves and 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.
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.