Also see Fred's review of Snow Falling on Cedars
Taking place in 1937, the production boasts designer Alexander Dodge's two scrumptious sets (an outside veranda and then an interior) depicting Villa I Tatti in Florence, Italy. Berenson or, as known to all, BB, makes reference to Mussolini and his ominous potential at the outset. This venerable historian is married to Mary (Shirley Knight) and he also has a very pretty assistant, Nicky Mariano (Heidi Schreck). Nicky facilitates professional matters for BB and also enjoys her role as his longtime mistress.
The first forty-five minutes or so of Gray's well-crafted piece serves to introduce its characters. The fifth member of the cast is Edward Fowles (Rufus Collins), who represents Duveen. Joe's arrival, late in the first act, energizes the proceedings. Until that moment, it is apparent that the actors, led by director Michael Rudman, are proficient and that the play is a period piecean educational one at that. It is also dry and not, for a while, all that intriguing.
Actor Brian Murray, fittingly aged and stiff, is also affable, colloquial, and presents a promising partnership offer to BB. The second act revolves around turn of plot. Duveen brings along a painting called "The Adoration of the Shepherds." Many experts have agreed that it was painted by Giorgione, but Berenson begs to differ; he is certain that Titian, a student of Giorgione, is truly the man whose work it is. The silver-haired Waterston, dapper and handsome, brings a bit more passion to his character as The Old Masters evolves. If not, Berenson would be easily squashed by the effusive, demonstrative Duveen. Murray, as Joe, lights up the stage with his presence, laugh, and live-for-the-moment attitude.
Mary Berenson has more to say during the initial portion of the play than later on. Shirley Knight's careful rendering presents a woman with whom one can easily sympathize. She is not well and she has been living with a man whose other woman literally sits across the room. Mary is a woman who understands and articulates her difficult situation. Gray writes some of his finest lines for her. Knight's performance is well delineated.
Gray, who passed away in 2008, leaves us a play which works well for a mature audience. Youthful Americans might not easily relate to the material. Anyone itching for action will fidget during the initial section. When actors Murray and Waterston face off, the production lifts. The two men disagree but without enmity. This is not the first time the two have quarreled.
The Long Wharf presentation carries an inviting look. In addition to designer Dodge's contributions, costumer Toni-Leslie James's outfits match time and place perfectly. To a degree, this play is an acquired taste. The highlights occur, without doubt, during its second hour.
The Old Masters continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through February 13. For tickets, call the box office at (203) 787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.
- Fred Sokol