By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In an essay published two weeks ago in the Los Angeles Times, playwright Jon Robin Baitz sounded almost embarrassed that his play now at the Taper (Ten Unknowns — which focuses on a pair of American expat painters in Mexico, whose lives are imploding) should be performing as America plunges more deeply into the Iraqi "Zeitgeist."
"You might ask, as I have, why would anyone want to see a play about the crazed lives of artists when there are so many more interesting things going on? . . . In such times, art falls so far short of real life that the failure is unbearable. And in such times the stakes become higher," Baitz wrote.
It's hard to tell whether Baitz's humility is excessive or false. Perhaps he actually believes the propaganda that the arts are a mere fantastical indulgence compared to the "real" endeavors of making money and making war. If, in these harrowing times, the failure of art is unbearable, as Baitz says, it's certainly no more unbearable than the failure of the stock market or of international diplomacy.
When Colin Powell recently spoke at the United Nations, a mural reproduction of Picasso's Guernica behind him had been covered by a sheet in order to avoid upstaging the American secretary of state with the grotesque irony the painting would impart.
The very real horrors of war do not trivialize the art of Picasso's Guernica, or of Homer's The Iliad, or of a painting as removed from politics as Dali's The Persistence of Memory— or, for that matter, of Baitz's quite thoughtful play, even though it runs aground.
The painter characters in Ten Unknownsare not politically charged as was Picasso or Homer, but that doesn't diminish their shared, monastic struggle to get at something truthful, something more grounded than flighty commerce, fame or even just a sense of validity. These are the ideas Baitz is wrestling with, in and beyond Ten Unknowns, and such spiritual concerns are neither petty nor incidental. Rather, if our future is in jeopardy, their import is that much greater.
Baitz's reflective remarks about the alleged failure of art attest more to his own shock and awe at current events than to the capacity of art. Dissident art defied a gag order and helped bring down communist regimes in Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union. Markets will crash, empires will fall, but so long as there's still a world to breathe in, The Iliad, Guernicaand King Learwill remain part of it — enduring largely because of their crystalline projection of the truth. Which raises the question of whether the arts are so impoverished in this country because of their irrelevance, or because of their potency.
If Ten Unknownshas a limited future, as Baitz suggests in the same essay, it's not because we've entered a season when art can't compete with reality but because his play falls apart, which is a problem of an entirely different magnitude. Furthermore, emulating the moral outrage of most plays by Ibsen, Ten Unknownssettles upon a single overarching and accurate complaint that life is unfair. Unfortunately, this is embodied by a 25-year-old, drug-addicted apprentice (very nicely played by Jonathan M. Woodward, who squints perpetually as though somebody has just hauled him out of bed and shoved him into the garden). He has indeed been wronged — in a sense, robbed — by his aging master. Though this is certainly unpleasant, and notwithstanding the young man's heroin addiction, he still has his life in front of him. His petulance is cemented into the core of his argument — not that the world is fundamentally corrupt but that he didn't get enough attention from his father figure. So what promises in Act 1 to be a Schreiabout an old artist's road to extinction turns out to be a whine by a young man over hitting a speed bump.
All that said, Ten Unknownsis pretty interesting. A work with such intelligent repartee and withering sarcasm needn't be completely successful to be worthy. Baitz's wit recalls Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, with its tart shots at the NYC art world's haughty capriciousness and its sycophantic mercenaries. All of which is elevated by the magnetically gruff Stacy Keach, looking like a cross between Jack Nicholson and Brian Dennehy, portraying the crusty geezer who suffocates his delicate art pupil a thousand miles from the hub.
Baitz sets the play in the artists' 1992 Oaxaca, Mexico, studio — all corrugated tin and splattered paint (set by David Jenkins) where the artistically blocked Malcolm Raphelson (Keach) has beached himself since his heyday in the '40s when he romped around East L.A. Enter fey art dealer Trevor Fabricant (Patrick Breen), a fusspot from South Africa who wants to bring Malcolm and his paintings north for an NYC retrospective exhibition of "unknown" figurative painters who were driven from the scene in the '50s by the all-pervasive trend of abstract expressionism.
For a host of reasons, personal and ethical, Malcolm resists Trevor's offer, and in that resistance resides the play's heart: Baitz belongs to a rare cadre of serious artists who know well the feeling of being in the spotlight one minute and then being out of it. (The success of his The Film Societyat the Los Angeles Theater Center in 1987 propelled him to New York, where The Substance of Fire and Three Hotels commanded international attention.) But Baitz has since relocated from the East Coast — or "dislocated," as he put it in a recent phone conversation. He's all but admitted in print that his fear of artistic mortality is this play's driving impulse.