"How do you decide which horror to notice?" This question, rhetorically muttered by the embittered old painter who is the central character of Ten Unknowns, could double as the artistic credo of the play's author. In the seven plays he's written in 15 years, Jon Robin Baitz has focused on corruption and moral rot as it shows up in various corners of business--publishing, academia, high finance, Hollywood.
With Ten Unknowns, he takes on the art world: Malcolm Raphelson (blandly played by Donald Sutherland) is an obscure figurative painter who felt shut out when abstract expressionism hit the art world and fled to rural Mexico for an extended period of heavy drinking and not painting. Hoping to launch a lucrative rediscovery campaign, his ambitious dealer, Trevor Fabricant (a superbly irritating performance by Denis O'Hare), arranges a 50-year retrospective at a New York gallery. To pull some new work out of the old guy, Trevor dispatches his ex-lover Judd Sturgess (the mesmerizing Justin Kirk), an aspiring painter and part-time junkie, to work as Raphelson's assistant. The matchmaking seems to work. A number of striking new paintings appear, and Trevor, who has already sold them sight unseen, comes to collect them. The problem, we learn as the first act closes, is that Malcolm is too rusty and terrified to touch brush to canvas, and Judd is actually responsible for the images.
If Baitz had stopped there, he would have created an evocative one-act play with three sharply drawn characters, leaving the audience pondering the mysteries of collaboration, blocked creativity, and male mentorship. Unfortunately, the second act goes on to overexplain everything the audience has already gleaned, turning the characters into one-note types: the hypocritical failed artist, the greedy art dealer, the self-destructive fag. A fourth character, a Berkeley graduate student researching a nearly extinct species of frog, is around to provide some anemic heterosexual love interest. Played somnolently by Julianna Margulies, she spouts cringe-worthy lines such as "I don't understand how you artists live with all this feeling."
Worst of all, the play spends an inordinate amount of time making the kind of philistine pronouncements about abstract and conceptual art that people who know nothing about art always make. Such cheap shots and corny pseudoconflicts are unworthy of a writer with Baitz's fierce intelligence.
Find more on Ten Unknowns and other plays by Jon Robin Baitz at www.advocate.com
Shewey is the editor of Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays.
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|Title Annotation:||Review; Lincoln Center Theater, New York, New York|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Theater Review|
|Date:||Apr 24, 2001|
|Previous Article:||The Golden Bowl.|
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