If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

“OLD MASTERS” MAKES U.S. PREMIERE AT LONG WHARF



New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre is currently presenting a first-rate production of a not-so-first-rate drama, Simon Gray’s “The Old Masters”.  The late playwright of such modern British classics as “Butley” and “Quartermaine’s Terms”, produced this later work in 2004 where it played in London’s West End under Harold Pinter’s direction.  The Long Wharf engagement is the U.S. premiere for the play.

In “The Old Masters”, Gray explores the true-life relationship between two aging friends and fierce rivals: renowned art historian Bernard Berenson (Sam Waterston) and the notorious art dealer Joseph Duveen (Brian Murray).  Set at Berenson’s swanky Florence villa during the rise of Benito Mussolini, the play spends nearly its entire first act setting up the meeting between Berenson and Duveen.  The historian is still a proud and opinionate man, but he’s also running out of money fast and has a sickly wife (the glorious Shirley Knight) and a longtime secretary/mistress to support (Heidi Schreck).  When Duveen offers to make Berenson a full partner in an upcoming art sale, the historian’s reputation is on the line as a business transaction suddenly turns shady.

Simon Gray has set the stage for a battle royal between two verbose though faltering lions.  But “The Old Masters” seems to bog down in far too much talk about art and commerce, politics and the innate corruption between art dealer and art expert.  You will learn more about the painting, “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, its artist, Giorgione and his pupil, Titian, than you are probably ready to digest.  These high-minded men can articulate with the best of them but, in the end, there’s little soul to the play, little reason to connect with these chilly personalities.

Under the leisurely direction of Michael Rudman, Brian Murray commands the stage even with an entrance very late into the first act.  His Duveen is a sly con man, on his last legs, but still ready to go the distance.  Murray is a delight pulling out a whole bag of tricks to ensnare his old friend back into the business.  Waterston, in the trickier role, is not an ideal fit for Berenson – it’s safe to say the actor will never be confused for a Lithuanian Jew.  But the actor, in an accomplished and highly entertaining performance, works against type and produces satisfactory results.  Best of all is Ms. Knight, luminous as Berenson’s long-suffering wife, in denial about her illness and anxious to leave her children an inheritance.

Alexander Dodge’s gorgeous settings include Berenson’s sun-dappled (credit lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski) patio and a richly appointed library.  The men’s beautifully tailored suits are the highlights of Toni-Leslie James’ period costuming.  The play definitely picks up in the second act when Murray and Waterson go at it tooth and nail, but most of “The Old Masters” is tired; a lot of arty talk with little pay-off.  Long Wharf’s announcement about an “anticipated” Broadway move for the drama seems premature.

 “The Old Masters” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through Sunday, February 13.  For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers on 2.2.11


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