Chick, The Great Osram
A. Everett "Chick" Austin, Jr., who became director at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1927, was filled with showmanship, smarts and a spirit that would breathe life into Hartford's art scene. Sella offers a knowing, animated portrayal of the title character. But the structure of the play is constrictive.
An effervescent Chick opens the play, decked out by David C. Woolard in red top hat and coat to match. The scene is a classroom and the audience the students. Grimm supplies details concerning Austin's time at the Atheneum when he exhibited paintings by French masters Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and van Gogh. He produced an opera written by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson. Austin brought in George Balanchine in hopes of starting a dance school but Balanchine ultimately landed in New York City. Chick taught at Trinity College and staged parties at the Atheneum.
During an interlude, designer Tony Straiges transforms the stage into the Austins' sumptuous home on Scarborough Street. Helen is alone, hoping that Chick will telephone her. She and Chick married in Paris in 1929. They have two children but all is far from sanguine as Chick travels alone, and evidently enjoyed other relationships. Helen (whose family had wealth) is introspective and questioning. She wonders if she is the problem. Actress Graham fully nails the character.
The stage grows dark for a few moments. Suddenly, amid flashing bulbs and dangling objects, Chick assumes the character of the Great Osram. He took the name from the manufacturer of a German light bulb. The trickster, however, was not a happy man. He was not a regular at the Scarborough Street residence. Nor was he at the museum often enough to please a Board of Directors. Eventually, he was asked to resign his post. Austin thereafter went on to Hollywood for a short time.
Chick runs for ninety minutes, without intermission, but there's very little dramatic tension. Michael Wilson, directing, wisely pushes the play forward but he cannot create the impact necessary to fully sustain the piece. Grimm writes cleanly, and effectively captures Austin's life and times. Still, the straight-ahead format is limiting.
Grimm does an excellent job finding words for characters. As theatergoers, we come to know Chick and witness his eclecticism and evolution. As the play begins, he is high octane, confident that he will import the world to Hartford. He delivers on the ambition, eventually bringing an expensive production of Tis Pity, She's a Whore to the museum theater in 1943. Helen, upper crust and devoted to her husband, realizes that he is not faithful. Despite that awareness, she sits, awaits and hopes.
Chick, The Great Osram is a play comprised of three components. Each is of value, but the composite effect of the production does not equal the sum of the parts. The show continues at Hartford Stage through November 11th. For ticket and schedule information, visit www.hartfordstage.org or call (860) 527-5151.
- Fred Sokol