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Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-character, 70-minute diversion, A Picasso, is a workable specimen of the kind of thin-sliced American play that our theaters currently find most feasible, not so much a text as a pretext. A slim excuse brings together two people with conflicting views, and their confrontation gives a handy opportunity for supplying information, exploring issues, and ping-ponging badinage till they both part, not substantially changed by their encounter. The information supplied usually has to do with one of the two characters being some kind of historical celebrity icon.
As you would expect from its title, the celebrity in Hatcher’s play is Pablo Picasso (Dennis Boutsikaris). The year is 1941, the place is Nazi-occupied Paris, and the eminent painter is in a vault, where he has been brought by two plainclothesmen, confronting one Miss Fischer (Jill Eikenberry), a representative of the German Ministry of Culture, who wants him to authenticate one—at least one—of three doubtful Picasso drawings as being his own work. It turns out, inevitably, that Miss Fischer has more complex reasons for being there; the regime that sent her has reasons beyond simple attribution for wanting the drawings authenticated; and Picasso, being Picasso, has plenty of reasons for being hostile yet cagily cooperative with both Miss Fischer and the regime. Meantime, we get a handy, if superficial, sketch of Picasso’s life, loves, and artistic career, plus a quick sit-down tour through the ethics of art, and artists’ traditional lack thereof. Add a sprinkling of wisecracks, a smidgen of sex, a schmear of dead-celebrity gossip, and a sleight-of-hand ending by which three Picassos turn into five, with all parties getting the Picasso they need or deserve, and what’s an audience to do but go home comfortably happy, with the reassuring feeling that they, who now know all about Picasso, will never be faced with such crises in their own lives?
I’m only being half satirical. There is something to be said for sending an audience home happy—even the lowest form of artistic satisfaction is better than the artistic gloom or apathy that most current theater provokes—and there are virtues in both supplying audiences with information and teasing them with alternative ways of viewing an ethical crisis. For audiences brought up, as our TV-bred middle class has been, to resent anything that challenges their assumptions, teasing is at least a practical way to start them thinking. The difficulty is getting them beyond that point: When Bernard Shaw boasted that he coated his bitter dramatic pills with the sugar of comedy to make them go down easier, the Viennese critic Egon Friedell riposted, “How clever of the audience to lick off the sugar and leave the pill untasted.” In A Picasso, Hatcher has provided only the very mildest of bitter pills, and a fairly thick sugar coating, so that the result seems more like candy, or at best aspirin for children, yet there is enough medicinal good in the concoction to make you wish he had at least tried a little harder to get the proportions right. It certainly does nobody any harm to be reminded of Guernica—a major bone of contention in the play—and the circumstances behind it. A lot of the data scraps Hatcher provides go in the category of half-truths, or even less-than-half-truths—the dismissive treatment of Apollinaire is particularly misguided—but even this marks an improvement over the kind of play, popular these days, that’s based on no truths at all. Hatcher may be writing here manipulatively and a little too glibly, but he never writes foolishly; there is always the chance that anything the play tells you might be true.
And anything, in the hands of two fine actors, can seem a good deal truer than it is. John Tillinger’s production, unhurried and tidy, sets the mood for the duel and lets the players take it where they may. I won’t pretend that this is my favorite performance by Dennis Boutsikaris—an actor whose gift is for submerging himself in his roles isn’t necessarily the optimal choice to play a monster of ego like Picasso—but he has fun with the character’s scowling obsessiveness and flashes of peremptory hauteur. And Boutsikaris, like his acting partner here, has been off the New York stage far too long to make his return anything but a celebration; let’s wish him many better-fitting parts in more substantial plays. The role of his less than implacable opponent, in contrast, seems as perfectly tailored to the gifts of Jill Eikenberry as the would-be-severe suit in which costume designer Jane Greenwood has cunningly dressed her. But then, Eikenberry has always had the gift of making wildly varied roles seem perfectly tailored to her distinctive personality, from Victoria Woodhull to the wayward mother in Richard Greenberg’s Life Under Water, and the tormented Miss Fischer is no exception: She catches it handily, angst, accent, and all, making her return even more welcome than Boutsikaris’s. The way her utterly focused anguish burns through the last section of this flimsy script is the strongest single reason to see A Picasso.