A barrel of monkeys is all that’s missing from the frenetic, circus-themed opening of Abingdon Theatre Company’s production of The Frugal Repast. Unicycle riding, juggling, a child playing the violin - you name it, it’s rigorously represented in the first scene of this new play by Ron Hirsen that aims to prove life, love, and art are the most fun you can have in three rings. Beware, though, the minute the big top leaves town, for most of this play’s potential pleasures travel right along with it.
Savor the moments you can, and carry them through the rest of this 80-minute evening; they’re the best way, or perhaps the only way, of appreciating Hirsen’s flustered play. Viewed as a carnival-style entertainment, with broad, almost grotesque, portrayals of major historical figures and certain events and bits of dialogue repeating as if on schedule, The Frugal Repast does provoke a certain droll fascination. See six of Pablo Picasso’s anonymous girlfriends! Thrill to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s sly references to their lifelong love affair! Chortle as art dealer Ambrose Vollard repeatedly introduces all of them, and critic-poet Guillaume Apollinaire, using exactly the same reductive speech!
None of this, however, coalesces into the thoughtful examination of artistic trends, both aesthetic and financial, Hirsen probably intended to write. There is something of a plot, centering on two aerialist “Liberators of Art” (Harold Todd and Dawn Luebbe) who see themselves in Picasso’s “The Frugal Repast” and steal three etchings of it to preserve their own identities, protest private art ownership, and, through ransoming, pay for medical care for their ailing son (a still-learning Kyrian Friedenberg). But this is merely the vehicle for exploring age-old questions like “What is art?”, “Who owns art?”, and “What spawned Picasso’s ‘Synthetic Cubism’ period?” The answer to the last, for the record, is “the artknappers’ ransom note,” which they pasted together from newspaper clippings.
If that sounds delightful to you, then you’ll likely find the entire play enchanting, as it’s assembled in the same whimsical style. The rest of us are supposed to be content with in-depth looks at the first two questions, with Vollard (David Wohl), Apollinaire (Frank Liotti), Stein (Lizbeth Mackay), Toklas (Julie Boyd), and Picasso (Roberto DeFelice) arguing over the significance of commerce in the world of art and, perhaps more importantly, art in the world of commerce. Vollard’s earth-shaking declaration, “Art cannot be bought, it can only be sold,” is typical of one side of the discourse; Picasso statements such as “Painting is not just looking, painting is seeing” define the other in equally facile terms.
It doesn’t take long for these chicken-curry clatches of art criticism to degenerate into a Montparnasse Square Table of fizzling wit. Director Joe Grifasi can’t do much to keep them lively, but fares much better with the aerialists’ scenes: Whether stealing Picasso’s etchings via tightrope stunts or musing about their own sorry lot in life in mutedly optimistic terms, these two on the fringes of proper society are more recognizable than all the characters with much more famous names. In playing them, Todd and Luebbe bring some surprising vestiges of humanity to this otherwise caricature-riddled show. (As they spend the whole show referring to each other as “baguette” and “sausage,” this is a greater achievement than you might assume.)
Luebbe would do well to loosen up a bit, as her rigid posture doesn’t suggest the supple talents of a woman who makes her living in the air. The ingratiating Todd is much more believable, and turns in the production’s finest work as a concerned father who gets in over his head when faced with trying circumstances. Most of the other performances - particularly DeFelice’s antic Picasso and Liotti’s insufferable Apollinaire - border on the grim, though Boyd, who has a few fleeting moments of palatable sweetness as Toklas, and how Kathleen McElfresh gets as many laughs as she does from her six quarter-tone roles as Picasso’s alphabetic mistresses is The Frugal Repast’s biggest mystery.
The runner-up must be why Hirsen would see lowbrow comedy as his subjects’ ideal delivery method. Gathering together this compressed colony of Cubists and commentators at a turning point in contemporary art history is a fascinating concept worthy of a less-satirical treatment than the one it receives here. Picasso, Stein, Toklas, Apollinaire, and Vollard would undoubtedly find plenty of interesting things to say - but they deserve the opportunity to express them in voices and words more recognizably and uniquely theirs.
The Frugal Repast