The Old Masters -- An Intellectual Delight

By Bob and Karen Isaacs

Bob was prepared to fully embrace the production of Simon Gray’s new play, The Old Masters, because he has a predilection for art criticism ever since his experience with the 19th century art critic Walter Pater. He was not disappointed. Karen had enjoyed other plays by Simon Gray. She was not disappointed.

The Old Masters is a beautiful piece of work in which the audience is treated to a kind of debate between two famous 20th-century persons involved in art, Bernard Berenson (played with caprice by the talented Sam Waterston) the pre-eminent Renaissance art authority and Joseph Duveen (comfortably captured by Brian Murray) a notorious art dealer who, with Berenson popularized and placed numerous Renaissance treasures throughout America.

The play takes place initially in 1937 in Berenson’s home, I Tatti, outside Florence in Italy.  We get a clever picture of Berenson and his ménage, his wife Mary, wonderfully created by the talented Shirley Knight, and his mistress who also serves as secretary to the family coolly developed by Heidi Schreck. We are made aware of the world in which BB (the appellation used for Berenson) is living as Europe totters on the edge of World War II and Italy is ruled by Mussolini. BB disregards the danger of the fascist state and goes about ridiculing Mussolini much to the chagrin of his wife; he calls Mussolini “the duck.”  We also learn that despite the wealth of art that obviously is owned by BB there is currently a shortage of money.  One of the reasons is that BB and his “partner,” Joseph Duveen, the moneyman, have been on the outs, but that is about to change.

Duveen arrives and ingratiates himself once again with BB and Mary chiefly by offering BB a full partnership in his business.  There is a catch, however, and that involves BB’s verification of a painting that Duveen is planning to sell to a wealthy American. Duveen wants BB to withdraw his previous verification and allow the painting to go as everyone else believes.

In truth there isn’t much difference here unless you are a person of reputation as BB believes. The debate really comes down to BB’s sense that he cannot compromise his reputation despite the fact it makes little difference and certainly the Berenson ménage
could use the money.

But this brief synopsis does not do justice to the multiple ideas and points of view expressed. Clearly Gray wants us to think about how attribution –who wrote or painted something – affects our ideas about the work and its value. Why should it make such a difference if the painting in question in the play is by Titian or by Gioglone? In either case it is masterpiece.

The last scene of the play takes place 30 years later with the principle parties now dead and in the same villa now occupied by Heidi. Delightfully we learn about how things turned out and are left with a pleasant tingle and sense of being intellectually stimulated.

The Old Masters is a delicious piece of work wonderfully directed by Michael Rudman with a terrific set design by Alexander Dodge and a sterling cast that produces real human beings out of gods.

Shirley Knight, Sam Waterston and Brian Murray are more than equal to the task that Gray puts before them. Each humanizes his or her character. You are truly watching masters of stage acting at work.

We certainly enjoyed it; we think you will, too.

The Old Masters is at New Haven’s Long wharf Theater through Feb. 13. For tickets and information call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online at

This review appeared in Shore Publications.

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