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 Unknowns are 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, Guernica and King Lear will 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 Unknowns has 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 Unknowns settles 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 Schrei about 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 Unknowns is 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 Society at the Los Angeles Theater Center in 1987 propelled him to New York, where The Substance of Fire [1990] and Three Hotels [1992] 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.

Accentuating that idea is Julia Bryant (Klea Scott), a grad student researching the demise of frogs at a nearby lake. Things end, they come and go, it's no cause for upset, Malcolm points out with an existential perspective that comes from being resigned in more ways than one. Julia's presence is calculated to upset the fragile interpersonal ecosystem of Malcolm, his apprentice, Judd Sturgess (Woodward), and Trevor. The stress is already simmering from the history of Judd and Trevor being ex-lovers. But the sexual tension introduced by Julia turns out to be anemic, and the consequent psychological dance feels extraneous. This is partly due to Scott's stilted performance and to director Robert Egan's long-observed history of working so well with actors and not as well with actresses.

Baitz expanded Ten Unknowns from his 1995 one-act Amphibians. Despite being produced in New York at Lincoln Center with Donald Sutherland (plans for Broadway got scuttled) and with all the scene shifting and rewriting for the Taper, Ten Unknowns is still a two-and-a-half-hour one-act with an intermission.

When the first half's lofty attention to the eclipse of eras and species turns into Julia's stoic recollection of her abortion, and into Judd's cross-armed indignation that his still young existence hasn't been sufficiently noted, it's clear the play has moved from a droll and well-observed satire to a tacit endorsement of self-pity. Still, Ibsen at times comes perilously close to soap opera. Baitz, too, is an excellent writer, and any play's slide from fulfilling its lofty promise to simply being worthwhile is a slippery one.

TEN UNKNOWNS | By JON ROBIN BAITZ | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through May 4

LA Weekly