Regional Reviews: St. Louis
You could divide the opening night performance into three mini-acts: the first, where the great artist meets a lovely young Nazi art expert (Maggie Murphy); the second, where Picasso gradually takes control of their confrontation; and the third, where everything changes. And, on opening night it was the middle portion (where Picasso takes control) that really killed. The other two sections, the beginning and the end, had not yet been fully been realized.
And, though there is plenty of witty banter, and the battle of wits is interesting, there were also two unfortunate moments (one for each performer, though I failed to write down Ms. Murphy's lapse) that helped reinforce the idea of an under-developed "first section." For Mr. Beyer, it was a sort of large, long "take" with his head drawing his whole body toward his scene partner, in the manner of a surprised giraffe, as the Nazis' plans are first revealed. I'm guessing that the extremely capable director, Steve Callahan, lets this go by because it's too soon for Picasso to explode, and perhaps because a director sometimes has to trust a highly experienced actor to know what feels right. But in a house the size of the West End Players Guild, smaller is usually better, especially so early in the evening.
And when a show runs (probably less than) an hour and twenty minutes, you should also be able to experiment with pauses and tension. At least half of this show, though beautifully choreographed, plays a little too caffeinated, with both actors charging around a small table for much of the action. Certainly, they maintain our full attention, and there's plenty of visual variety in the limited realm of the cellar-like stage. But it seems the pair is still in rehearsal mode for the first half hour: still rushing from work; still rushing through the fast-food drive-thru; and gobbling their burgers in the parking lot, when they should have settled into their characters with more threatening reserve.
But then there's that excellent middle section, where Mr. Beyer blossoms, and his seductive charms take command, and Ms. Murphy's resolve is steadily, almost painfully, worn away. It's magnificent, because it has time to breathe. The whole plot centers on the authentication of three sketches, by the "degenerate" artist, to be burned publicly, now that the Germans have invaded Paris (in 1941). And playwright Hatcher gives both of his characters some good speeches that make the artist explain his childhood and his relationships with women, and also make the good German girl explain how convoluted her own life has become, till she's twisted as a Picasso herself.
Then there's more Teutonic thrashing around in that final third, though Ms. Murphy beautifully delivers some nice confessional dialog, while Mr. Beyer luxuriates like a cat in a sunbeam. She has that funny little "Karen Black" thing here, which I suspect may be an affectation, where her left eye occasionally goes a bit crossed. It seems to come and go, which makes it seem like a character choice, and one that's rather intriguing: seeming to point to her inner doubts, and making her more intriguing.
Initially, I wondered if the director had challenged Mr. Beyer as much as he could have, to be more intense where they could easily get away with it. It's what I remember from the photographic evidence of the artist: the dark, smoldering eyes and the comically threatening attitude of a flasher in a raincoat, or a lion tamer, or a great impresario. But, owing to the structure of this fictional confrontation, one of the characters must be more passive. And with that Inquisitional dynamic, it certainly wasn't going to be the Nazi who got pushed around. So lay the blame for a more politic Picasso at the foot of the playwright. But give the West End Players Guild credit for bringing us another fascinating show.
Through October 3, 2010, at the Union Avenue Christian Church (733 Union Boulevard), a short block north of Delmar, on the west side of the street. Parking is behind the church. For more information visit them online at www.westendplayers.org.
Photo by John C. Lamb