"Old Masters" Totters Along

By David A. Rosenberg

Although the title “The Old Masters” refers to the play at Long Wharf, it might just as well refer to the actors who struggle to bring it to life. Sam Waterston, Brian Murray and Shirley Knight are accomplished players, yet their vehicle chugs along up this road and down this byway, reaching its destination by default when the final lights dim. Maybe it would have worked better if it had chucked a lot of baggage (like the first and third scenes) beforehand.

            Starting with a heavy and, as it turns out, largely unnecessary first act, it doesn’t move much until the second part. This is the entrance of a sly, bumptious Brian Murray as famous art dealer Joseph Duveen. Resplendent in fur-trimmed coat, doting on the unlit cigar his doctor forbade him to smoke, and oozing seductive charm, Murray brings not only life but conflict to playwright Simon Gray’s meandering talkfest.

            Gray, the estimable author of hits like “Butley,” “Quartermaine’s Terms,” “Otherwise Engaged” and “The Common Pursuit,” is here flying at half mast.  Steeped in academia, the late, admired author has heretofore cloaked his examinations of men struggling for authenticity in more dramatic terms, engaging not just the characters but the audience.

In “Old Masters,” he’s bursting with information about artists and art markets. Duveen has come to expert art appraiser and old colleague Bernard Berenson’s Italian villa (Florence, 1937) to have him authenticate a canvas. Is it by Giorgione, Duveen hopes, rather than the more prolific and therefore less valuable Titian? Berenson, short on cash, is tempted to go along with Duveen, especially after the latter offers him a slice of the business in return.

This is a clash between art and commerce, between integrity and unscrupulousness, told against the rise of Mussolini and the coming war. In that way, Gray purports to add both depth and context since Berenson (or “B.B.,” as he’s called) is a Lithuanian Jew with a dying wife and young mistress. (About his wife he says, ”It’s been a long time since we had a conversation about life or Giotto – or had a brawl.”)

So we have Fascism, Jews, art, money, adultery, truth vs. lies – all valid but so diffuse that it all eventually boils down to our privileged eavesdropping on a high-toned tête-à-tête between two strong personalities. Reminiscent of other art vs. commerce works like “Red” (Mark Rothko) and “Amadeus” (Mozart), it’s a valid premise but Gray neglects the intellectual challenge and human involvement of those plays. We couldn’t be more detached

Yes, it’s fun to watch Sam Waterston’s preening, effete, slightly-effeminate, bird-like Berenson. Yes, Brian Murray’s bearish portrayal (as in Teddy- bearish, actually) is wittily entertaining. As B.B.’s wife, Mary, Shirley Knight goes beyond the writing to create a warm-blooded character who balances hysteria and rationality, especially in a poignant scene at the end of Act Two.

Wasted in other roles are Heidi Schreck as B.B.’s mistress, Nicky, and Rufus Collins, as lawyer Edward Fowles. Both, unfortunately, are saddled with the short closing scene, taking place in 1965, in which we learn what happened to B.B., Mary and Duveen. We also learn, in case you wondered, who won World War II.

Michael Rudman’s polished direction respects the actors’ abilities to dig as deeply as they can, given such muddled material. Alexander Dodge’s luxurious sets reek of Italy and taste, while Peter Kaczorowki’s lighting and Toni-Leslie James’ costumes add elegance to what is, in the end, a work much less valuable than the masterpieces it depicts.

 

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