Also see Tim's reviews of Speaking in Tongues and Bat Boy: The Musical
The central character is Nathan Wanamaker, a grandson and protégé of the Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker. It's 1911, and Nathan has been sent to Paris to buy goods that can be sold at his grandfather's new retail palace. (Nathan is a fictional character, although the Wanamaker store did have a Paris office charged with acquiring European fashion.) While in Paris, Nathan gets a crash course in modernism when he crosses paths with Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein, two geniuses who spend most of their time reminding the world how brilliant they are. Also in Nathan's new social circle are Gertrude's brother, the art collector Leo Stein; the adventurous fashion designer Paul Poiret, whose designs Nathan pursues; and Paul's sexy young wife Denise, whom Nathan also pursues.
All of these people have lessons to teach Nathan, but he's more interested in Henry Ford's newfangled assembly line than the Ballets Russes. (After wandering away from his friends during a tour of the Louvre, Nathan apologizes by saying "I got lost somewhere in the sixteenth century.") But he does embrace the excitement of his new milieu: "I am now being forced to look at everything with fresh eyes."
The arguments between the characters are nearly always engaging, and there's a playful, smart tone to the dialogue, which never seems stilted. And there's a good balance between the concerns of the head and the heart. The artists prod Nathan and educate him gradually, but he's no fool or pushover; he challenges their pretensions and questions their live-for-the-moment ethos when it veers into hedonism and foolish judgments.
Yet the ending is predictable from the show's first scene; we know that no matter what happens to Nathan on his travels, he won't get far. And there are too many moments in Wanamaker's Pursuit that seem like weighty, symbolic statements by the playwright, even if the symbolism isn't always clear. Why does Nathan take part in fencing duels with Poiret, the husband he hopes to cuckold? Why is everyone obsessed with the recent robbery of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, and what it means to French society? And then there's the madman who leaps from the Eiffel Tower in the name of art; his death leads Nathan to observe that "for the first time I understood what life is." The madman's leap is, like each of these questionable moments, a leap too far for Martinez.
At one point, Denise asks Nathan why he looks so sadbut as played by Jürgen Hooper, Nathan seems less sad than sober and skeptical. With his calm demeanor and a voice lacking in inflection, Hooper does little to make the audience want to care about his journey. Nathan is supposed to be a blank slate for these artists to write upon, but it's hard to empathize with a character when his slate is this blank.
The artistic types are, fittingly, much more colorful, especially the women. Catharine K. Slusar is terrific as Gertrudeproud, condescending, and never less than confident in her own abilities. For her, every sentence is an occasion for a bold artistic statement, delivered in a sardonic tone that demands your attention. Geneviève Perrier's Denise is very aware of her own allure but never slips into coy clichés. It takes a while for Denise's relationship with Nathan to get going, but when it does, their love scenes work very well, mainly because of Perrier's bold, magnetic performance. There are also excellent performances by the men in supporting roles: Wilbur Edwin Henry as Paul; David Bardeen as Leo; and Shawn Fagan, who plays several small roles including Picasso. Each of the men gets a nice turn in the spotlight as they play characters that are brash and larger than life.
James Kronzer's set design is sleek, minimal and tasteful. But the costumes from Poiret's supposedly daring dress shop, designed here by Richard St. Clair, seem oddly underwhelming.
Nolen's production is warm and intimate, even making arrogant characters like Picasso and the Steins seem appealing. As a result, you'll feel good when Wanamaker's Pursuit concludes, perhaps even touched. And you might learn something, too. But the Arden's excellent production can't disguise the indulgent streak that runs through the play. Wanamaker's Pursuit is impressive, but it would work better if Martinez weren't trying so hard to impress us.
Wanamaker's Pursuit runs through May 22, 2011, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with discounts available for students, seniors, military, educators and children) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org, or in person at the box office.