Also see Sharon's recent review of She Loves Me
Jon Robin Baitz's Ten Unknowns is a perfectly decent three-character play which, unfortunately, has four characters in it.
It is the story of Malcolm, a painter, who burst on the artistic scene some fifty years ago in an exhibition of unknowns. But the art world moved on to abstract expressionism, leaving Malcolm's figurative paintings behind, and Malcolm himself moved to Mexico in a self-imposed exile. Recently, Trevor, an art dealer, rediscovered and sold one of Malcolm's paintings. The world is once again ready for Malcolm, and Trevor plans a retrospective of Malcolm's work at a prominent New York gallery. He sends Judd, a young art student, to Mexico to live with Malcolm, to work as his assistant and help him to start painting again. The play joins the story eight months later, and the experiment seems to be successful; Malcolm has created eight new paintings, and they're damn good.
There are, of course, problems. Malcolm isn't ready for the paintings to be seen - not by Trevor and certainly not by New York. Nor is he ready to expose himself to the same critical community that rejected him so long ago. He has been living happily in relative poverty in Mexico; it wasn't his idea to fly back to New York and attempt to earn money, and validation for his paintings. But the play isn't just about Malcolm. Baitz has thrown in plenty of interesting issues to create conflict among the three men. For example, Judd is a recovering drug addict, which raises the question of exactly who Trevor intended to babysit whom when he sent Judd to live with Malcolm.
And then there's the fourth character. Into this three-man play, Baitz inserts Julia, a grad student in biology who has come to Mexico to study the dwindling frog population in a nearby lake and somehow ends up staying at Malcolm's house. Julia is intended as a catalyst for the rest of the play. When she first appears on the scene, she engages the men in an intellectual debate which has a certain amount of flirtatious subtext to it. (Confident sexual women in plays like this always end up attracted to intelligent men twice their age.) There is also supposed to be some sort of metaphor between the destruction of the frog population and what the art world did to Malcolm. Actress Klea Scott has a difficult time with Julia; she sounds scripted, even when the lines should be bubbling forth from her in a torrent of unpremeditated self-expression. But it isn't all Scott's fault; Julia is an impossible character, having to simultaneously embody the roles of teacher, lover, friend, and muse. And while it seems from this that her role is pivotal, one can't help thinking that the play would be crisper if she weren't there at all and all the necessary motivation came from within the men themselves.
There's a reasonably good play somewhere in Ten Unknowns, but it is undone by the presence of an unnecessary character, and it isn't helped by performances which are largely unmemorable.
Ten Unknowns runs at the Mark Taper Forum through May 4, 2003. www.taperahmanson.com
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum; Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Robert Egan, Producing Director present Ten Unknowns by Jon Robin Baitz; Directed by Robert Egan. Scenic Design by David Jenkins; Costume Design by Joyce Kim Lee; Lighting Design by Michael Gilliam; Sound Design by Jon Gottlieb; Paintings by Conor Foy; Casting by Amy Lieberman, C.S.A. Production Stage Manager Mary K Klinger; Stage Manager Robin Veith.
Photo by Craig Schwartz