Paint Thinner

The subject is art, but this well-acted play stays on the surface

click to enlarge ART OF ELUSIVENESS: PJ Sosko (background) - and George Tynan Crowley in Ten - Unknowns, which seems to have everything -- - except ideas. - FORREST MACDONALD
ART OF ELUSIVENESS: PJ Sosko (background) and George Tynan Crowley in Ten Unknowns, which seems to have everything -- except ideas.

'The great works of art," says visual arts critic Arthur C. Danto, "are those which express the deepest thoughts." It may seem presumptuous for anyone in our pluralistic age to define what makes "greatness" — especially a critic like Danto, who finds Andy Warhol's Brillo Pads sublime. But I think he's right nonetheless. And I think his definition is nothing short of inevitable. Consider two very different plays: Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. What's the criterion that leads us to assert that one is a masterpiece and the other a bit of fluff? After all, both deal with roughly similar subjects, the difficult relationship of two mismatched men. The Simon play has the more complicated structure, and probably the wider vocabulary. The Simon play is more laugh-out-loud funny, boasts more action and a wider sense of society. So why don't we rank it higher than the Beckett? For just the reason Danto asserts: because Godot, for all its minimalism, conveys profound insights into religious yearning, existential loneliness, doubt and human solidarity; while Simon's play, for all its technical excellence, expresses little more than, "Aren't these guys funny?" The great works of art — Godot, Hamlet, Oedipus, Three Sisters — express the deepest thoughts. No other criterion really seems to work.I make these remarks to explain why I don't think more highly of a play as seemingly accomplished as Ten Unknowns, currently showing at Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre. This Jon Robin Baitz work would seem to have everything: an original plot, intelligent dialogue, charismatic characters and at least one shocking revelation. Baitz clearly knows a thing or two about modern art, especially about the way certain figurative painters were relegated to obscurity by the triumph of Abstract Expressionism in the postwar years. And Baitz has one other strength, a respect for all his characters and for their irreducible complexity. If virtues like these were all that finally mattered, Ten Unknowns would be a modern classic.

But it's not; and the reason is, it lacks ideas. Its protagonist is an artist, but the play says nothing much about art beyond the fact that it's a difficult mistress. Another subject is forgery, but beyond recognizing the confusions that can crop up when a master and apprentice work too closely, Baitz doesn't seem to have anything important to tell us about the subject. To quote Danto again, real art is "central to the needs of the human spirit." But watching Ten Unknowns, I never once felt that any significant human question was being addressed; it was a good story but largely irrelevant. Will artist Malcolm Raphelson come out of self-exile, has he definitively lost the ability to make art, will he seduce young Julia Bryant, will he admit his debt to assistant Judd Sturgess? The play asks many questions, and the answers could hardly matter less. This is the Higher Shallowness, the work of a playwright who's intellectual, talented, has a story to tell and nothing to say. It'd be terribly impressive if it weren't so damned insignificant.

Still, the story's interesting: Malcolm Raphelson is an American figurative painter who in 1949 was featured in an exhibition of "Ten Unknowns." Since that time Raphelson has escaped to Mexico, where he produces canvases that he has no intention of selling. Art dealer Trevor Fabricant has sent his ex-lover, a minor wannabe named Judd Sturgess, to keep tabs on Raphelson, and to lend himself to Fabricant's campaign to get Raphelson to mount an exhibition. While Raphelson fights off Fabricant's cajoling, a young biologist, Julia Bryant, catches the eye of the aging painter. Fabricant wants Raphelson and a share of the art dollar, Raphelson wants Julia and the safety of isolation, Julia is searching for a near-extinct translucent frog, and Judd just may be more than a mere assistant. In a thrilling coup de thetre, we learn just what the Raphelson/Judd relationship really is, and then we watch as that secret becomes more or less general knowledge. A problem is solved, loose ends are tied up and the play ends in an upbeat mood that reminds me of a similarly perfunctory hopeful note at the end of Baitz's best-known drama, The Substance of Fire.

The acting, typical of FST, is superb. As Raphelson, George Tynan Crowley exudes stubborn power, fear of failure, bluster and vanity, and at times a genuinely painful helplessness. Also terrific is PJ Sosko as Judd Sturgess, the kind of wise-ass, street-smart loser who'd become an exploiter if he weren't so busy being exploited. Jessica Henson as Julia is eager for experience, free of illusions and brightly conscious of the fact that there are limits to her attractiveness. And Jason O'Connell as art dealer Fabricant is always searching for the formula that will break down Raphelson's resistance and result in the painter's return to art history. Director Kate Alexander has wisely encouraged her players to live at the intersection of intellect and emotion, and set designer Micahel Amico has built a credible artist's studio with red-tiled floors and an arched doorway looking out on some nicely realistic foliage. Finally, Marcella Beckwith's costumes — from Fabricant's white suit to Jud's blue jeans to Raphelson's individualistic, loose-fitting togs — are always on target. As usual, FST puts on a quality production.

But when is Jon Robin Baitz going to break through to the sort of deep, enduring truth that one finds in Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, David Mamet? Some years ago in Chicago, I saw a Steppenwolf Theatre production of Baitz's play A Fair Country; as with Ten Unknowns, it was intelligent, seemingly honest, surely original; as with Ten Unknowns, it told me nothing, left me cold. I'm baffled by this playwright who knows so much and reveals so little, who's cerebral, erudite, skilled and yet inessential. It's disturbing to think that one could know so very much and still not be a seer.

Malcolm Raphelson is a great artist in Danto's sense: a visionary. That's the way Baitz writes him, and the way he comes across.

But Baitz is still a journeyman, a mere tale-teller, a gifted technician.

And so Ten Unknowns, for all its polish, falls flat.

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