Also see Suzanne's recent review of Lysistrata
Since playwright Jon Robin Baitz is the recipient of the first commission generated by the Huntington Theatre's Calderwood Fund for New American Plays, it looks like his Boston connection is firmly established. Ten Unknowns, his most recent stage work and the final offering of the 2001-2002 regular Huntington season, raises my enthusiasm. I wasn't so sure about Baitz after seeing A Fair Country and his rather colloquial adaptation of Hedda Gabler last season.
The premiere of Ten Unknowns at Lincoln Center in March 2001 garnered attention due to its "star power." Initially, Jason Robards (who died the December before) was rumored to be playing the crusty expatriate American painter. Donald Sutherland, in his first New York stage appearance since Edward Albee's Lolita, signed on instead. Julianna Margulies, of television's ER fame, joined him to make her stage debut as a graduate student who becomes a refugee in the artist's Mexican studio.
The likely Broadway transfer didn't happen when Sutherland pulled out. But Nicholas Martin stepped in to plug a gap in the Huntington season, and New York's loss is Boston's gain. Director Evan Yionoulis, new to me, would also make a nice Huntington regular. She exhibits an even hand and creates a lovely, satisfying flow from one scene to the next.
Ron Rifkin (pictured at right), a Baitz veteran from both the stage and film versions of A Substance of Fire, provides a balanced center to the play as Malcolm Raphelson. We watch him struggle to put brush to canvas and understand the pain of his swift descent from one of the promising "10 unknowns" to the much larger pool of the "quickly forgotten" in the wake of the Abstract Expressionism trend.
The catalyst for the play's events is art dealer Trevor Fabricant. Also an expat (from South Africa despite T. Scott Cunningham's unconvincing accent) he flies down from New York periodically to check on the product he needs to complete a retrospective for the Raphelson revival he's trying to fuel. To keep things progressing he has provided a painter's assistant in the form of a young artist who needs a sojourn in Mexico to dry out from the lures, legal and otherwise, of the downtown art scene. Judd, fully embodied by Jonathan Woodward, gets more than he bargained for when his raw talent and painting skills become the only means by which Malcolm's artistic vision can be expressed.
The fourth character is less well realized. Nonetheless, Kathryn Hahn fills Margulies' shoes well as a representation of the one luxury from the States that Malcolm confesses he sometimes misses - an all-American girl. Her twenty-eight years spent trying to find a life, parallel the period of time Malcolm's been running away from his. She functions as the outsider who brings us into the world of the working artist. Although we are sometimes one jump ahead of her in terms of secrets revealed, the truths about the various relationships - artist to artist, artist to promoter and man to man - are understood in step with her.
Set Designer Adam Stockhausen, with able assistance from lighting designer Donald Holder and composer Rick Baitz, effectively establishes Malcolm's existence in his artist's outpost. And special note must be made of the paintings which are so essential to the turning points of the story. According to the Huntington's Spotlight, they were done by artist Ru Jun Wang to Stockhausen's specifications. Never have I seen a fictional artist's work so well represented on stage or screen.
This is a more mature and more satisfying play than A Fair Country. Baitz gives us a fascinating look at the artist's struggle to make his art and then have to use it to barter for sustenance and, ultimately, recognition and existence. We also explore the fascinating role of an artist's assistant and, though not as fully, the question of authenticity.
By the end of the evening I was reminded a little of my reaction to Proof. Both plays have such a strong act one climax that the ultimate conclusion doesn't pack the same punch nor offer quite the landing one would hope for. Still, the pleasure of getting there was enough to set my expectations high about what is in store for us from Mr. Baitz.
Ten Unknowns at The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston now through June 16th. For additional information and tickets call 617 266-0800 or visit www.huntingtontheatre.org.