I’ve only seen Tina Howe’s Museum twice in 25 years, but that’s sufficient evidence to justify my claim: This is the most enchantingly tesserated play ever written. A little mosaic of events and incidents that crisscross one another in the contemporary gallery of a medium-sized art museum, Howe’s play has actions, but no “dramatic action” or “dramatic structure” as those things are normally understood. Its shape is musical, with the themes tossed back and forth from one set of gallery-goers to another, while its two climaxes—one high and transfiguring, the other a low despoliation of the gallery’s content—are treated with the same gently satiric tone of amused, compassionate detachment as everything else. If Mozart had been a TV producer, this is what a Candid Camera segment on art might have looked like.
Howe must have had a wonderful time inventing the three young American artists whose work is on display in the gallery’s group show, “The Broken Silence”: Zachary Moe, conceptualist painter of all-white acrylic-on-canvas works; Agnes Vaag, who sculpts with found organic materials, including animal skeletons; and Steve Williams, whose soft-sculpture construction, Wet Dream Hung Out to Dry, dominates the room, on loan from the L.A. County Museum. As that last fact indicates, Howe’s approach is thorough: Though only one of the artists actually appears on this, the exhibition’s last day, by the time the play’s 85 overstuffed minutes have romped to an end, we’ve had a sampling of everything that can be said about them, from their childhoods and work processes to their more eccentric habits, their critical standing, and their market prices. (For producers’ benefit, the published acting edition includes brief biographies of the three artists, with a list of the works on display.)
On this triangular cornerstone, Howe erects a flamboyant, free-form structure whose materials are the innumerable varieties of artspeak and the infinite wealth of motives that lie behind them. What art means to its makers, their families, their friends; what it conveys to collectors, curators, aficionados, browsers, wanderers, philistines, and the security guards who watch over it; how it can turn people into snobs, swine, seducers, saints, or raving exhibitionists in the blink of an eye—these are among the complexly chromatic developments Howe derives from her simple theme of people in a public space looking at an object. Some see transcendence and revelation where others see only imitative idiocy; the work that makes one person swoon makes another shout, “Smash the ugly thing.” A visiting French couple can’t find adjectives harsh enough for Steve Williams (who, we’re told, spent several years living in Paris), but adores Zachary Moe, whose “blank” canvases reduce three young American women to hysterical laughter. The behavior and conversation, like contemporary art itself, often veers away from reality: Photographers and sketchers, bearing handwritten permission from the museum director, proliferate in the gallery; two of them, who claim the director’s their father, don’t seem to know each other. When the beleaguered guard’s colleagues turn up on break, their guy-talk topic turns out to be semi-precious stones. Over the entire event hangs the news —heard on a radio announcement as the lights come up— of an art atrocity, committed in Italy, that seemed next to unimaginable when Howe wrote the play; regrettably, it rings out like naturalism now, a mark of how much worse the world has gotten. Life has, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, the dreadful habit of imitating art.
It does so, happily, because art itself has come from the currents of life in the first place; it’s ahead of us so often because it knows what we’re about. I remember, after seeing Museum at the Public Theater in 1978, hearing echoes of its lines every time I went into any kind of art exhibit for the next year or so; having experienced it again, I expect the next set of unconscious reverberations to be louder and longer-lasting though not as perfectly turned in their comic timing. To hear Howe’s characters bicker over whether a work should hang in the bedroom or the living room, whether it exemplifies pastiche or panache, whether it’s reductivist or just plain empty, could make you uncomfortable about the entire process of putting feelings about art into words. Maybe it is like dancing about architecture after all. And canny player that she is in this work, Howe has reserved her best joke about the relation of word to image for the very last moment.
In Carl Forsman’s production for Keen Company, that joke is played rather broadly, with big broad gestures where tiny muted ones might be more to the point. But if the point comes through loud, it also comes through clear: Forsman’s grasp of the script’s overall shape, his sense of it as a single living organism, is lucid and assured. He may let some moments slide, and allow others to be pushed too far, but he never gets in the way of either the flow of the event or the teasing, questioning intelligence behind it. And this seemingly negative virtue is no small matter, in a work with no central action that has 21 people dashing on and off the stage in 41 wildly varied roles. Museum‘s profuseness virtually invites a director with a less steady hand than Forsman’s to tip it out of balance; his victory is that you come away thinking of it as a whole event, rather than of what so-and-so did at such and such a moment.
Having said that, I’d probably be going against my principles if I singled out any individual performances. So I will, just to show that there aren’t any principles where contemporary art’s concerned: Kate Hampton as a curator and a souvenir shopper, Chris Hutchison as the most persistent photographer, Jennifer Gibbs as the last of them to arrive, Lael Logan as a girl with a strange fixation on Agnes Vaag’s sculptures, and the matched couples—two upscale shopaholic ladies and two gay male culture-vultures—whose perfectly rhythmed quartet is the evening’s high point, Susan Blackwell, Christa Scott-Reed, Brennan Brown, and Tony Hale. This isn’t to dispraise the others, or to dismiss the other roles in which those I’ve named turn up, simply to assert that Museum lives up to its title in yet another way: by having so much on display that one visit isn’t enough to take it all in.