REVIEW: Ten Unknowns (Will Act for Food)

No great truths revealed

 

10-unknowns

 
Will Act for Food presents
 
Ten Unknowns
 
By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by
Scott Pasko, assisted by Sally LaRowe
Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 1, 2936 N. Southport Ave. (map)
Through May 29  |  Tickets: $20; $15 with food donation  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Jon Robin Baitz’s Ten Unknowns, now in Chicago premiere from Will Act for Food, debuted in 2001, and it’s set in 1992, but it feels even older, dated, like something out of the 1970s. I thought we’d got beyond gratuitous nude scenes and endless yelling about exploitation and the debasement of culture.

Its Lincoln Center premiere received handsome reviews, so possibly this complex drama fit better into 2001 than it does into 2010, or perhaps that production simply overcame the script’s flaws. Scott Pasko’s interpretation seems fine, though, and the cast does well, so I think the play has just not aged well.

The nature of art, the relationship of art and commerce, the roles of assistants vs. collaborators, the personal weaknesses of artists, generation gaps, homosexuality, ecology, the 10-unknowns-croppedugliness of American culture … Baitz packs all this and more, in rising volume, into his very talky story about a drunken old failure of a painter and three young people who come into his life without any understanding of where he’s come from.

Malcolm Raphelson, hailed as a promising figurative artist when his work featured as part of the 1949 exhibition "Ten Unknowns," soon vanished into obscurity with the rise of abstract impressionism. In 1963, he exiled himself to rural Mexico, mescal and a mean existence. Dennis Newport‘s gravel-voiced portrayal dances from grim bemusement to naughty charm to raw power, although he often seems too vigorous for a 75-year-old man who’s been living in a bottle most of three decades.

When some of Raphelson’s work surfaces to acclaim, New York art dealer Trevor Fabricant believes time is ripe for a retrospective and a lucrative comeback. He sends his own young assistant and sometime lover Judd Sturgess down to work with Raphelson and help him create some new work. When the dealer comes down to view the results and arrange the showing, however, the painter resists.

The polished but uptight Fabricant, for unaccountable reasons, is from South Africa (Baitz’s boyhood home). That’s distracting — not only because Ben Veatch, otherwise nicely smarmy, mangles the accent — and detracts from the Ugly American theme the rest of the play projects.

Judd, talented and anxious to learn from the older artist, is a junkie. Neil Huff, brimming with attitude, does his best to create a character but the script gives him little to build on. His rants and revelations seem to come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, Raphelson picks up an unlikely fourth for this quartet, Julia Bryant, a Berkeley biology student researching nearly extinct frogs. Rachel Neuman‘s pretty, perky, wholesome Julia contrasts beautifully with the tormented and arty bunch — at least until the unraveling second act, when Judd loses it, Raphelson gives in, and Julia reveals her dark past and the rest of herself, too.

 
 
Rating: ★★½