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Ten Unknowns

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.

Stacy Keach and
Jonathan M. Woodward

This three-man play is interesting and well-acted, but not exceptionally so. The cast is led by Stacy Keach, who plays the disenchanted artist with ease. Keach plays up Malcolm's amiability; he calls Judd a "sarcastic little shit," but is easy to believe when he says he likes Judd nonetheless. And Keach reaches some real heights of beauty when Malcolm finally brings out one of his paintings and explains, in emotional terms, the meaning behind every element of the landscape. But, for much of the play, Malcolm seems almost too easy for Keach; he's pretty even-keeled throughout, and there are more highs and lows he could be playing. (He also speaks very softly at times, and the sound system of the Taper does not pick him up.) Patrick Breen's Trevor at first seems like a one-note character, a very snooty prig. But as the play progresses, Trevor reveals more complexities - he's much more knowledgeable about the ways of the world, and the ways to manipulate people, than his pristine appearance suggests - and Breen's performance is likewise revealed as more layered than it originally appeared. Finally, Jonathan M. Woodward as Judd is effective with his string of smart-assed one-liners early in the first act. But there's something a little awkward with some of his other dialogue. He's written to use phrases like "hey, man," and "no biggie," but it's hard to tell whether Judd actually talks like that or if he's mocking people who do. Judd has other lines that are clearly intended to be read sarcastically, but he doesn't always play them that way. Either Woodward and director Robert Egan missed the sarcasm in Baitz's text, or Judd has a really weird sense of humor. All in all, the trio's performances have some good moments and some less good ones, but aren't particularly remarkable one way or the other.

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.

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.

Trevor Fabricant - Patrick Breen
Malcolm Raphelson - Stacy Keach
Julia Bryant - Klea Scott
Judd Sturgess - Jonathan M. Woodward

Photo by Craig Schwartz

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