BWW Reviews: An Identity Crisis of Artistic Proportions in THE OLD MASTERS at Washington Stage Guild
Fans of the television shows Pawn Stars and Downton Abbey will find a lot to enjoy in Washington Stage Guild's production of The Old Masters. Simon Gray's play incorporates elements of art authentication and the survival of an aristocratic family into its plot. However, theatergoers who favor a well constructed play will not find The Old Masters as enjoyable. For a play about the identity crisis of a painting's artist, The Old Masters lacks a focal point and never quite settles on what it wants to be.
At its core, The Old Masters is about a relationship between scholar Bernard Berenson, or BB as he's called, and art dealer Joe Duveen. They've had a profitable business relationship for years buying and authenticating art. One night in 1937, Duveen shows up at BB's Italian villa and asks him to confirm the identity of the artist who painted The Adoration of the Shepherds. Both are well aware of the other's motives, BB's need for money and Joe's desire to sell the painting to Andrew Mellon, as these two old masters debate art, money, friendship and each other's reputation in society.
If Gray's play stuck to this plot-point alone, then The Old Masters would be a fantastic night at the theater. Unfortunately, too many additional storylines have been inserted into the play causing it to lose focus. There are issues involving BB's wife Mary and their relationship, his infidelities, their financial security and the constant reminder of the oncoming Second World War. The last issue is made so repetitively and almost seemingly without purpose.
The second act confrontation between David Bryan Jackson's BB and Conrad Feininger's Joe is superb, and brings order to an otherwise bewildered piece. Jackson, who triumphed last year in Spooky Action Theatre's production of The Two Character Play, gives BB an incredible arrogance. This portrayal seeks to serve as a shield for BB from some of the harsh realities of his professional situation. Not to be outdone, Feininger gives an immense performance as Joe whose oversized personality is used to mask a cunning agenda. Feininger's boisterous Act One entrance notably signifies that BB has met his intellectual match.
Immense credit must also be given to the supporting cast for making sense of the play's numerous plotlines, none of which get completely rectified. As Mary, BB's wife, Jewell Robinson has to play an aging character physically and emotionally sickened by the fear of financial ruin and the knowledge of her husband's extramarital affairs. Her performance is genuine and she's very effective at conveying how her worry has manifested itself into pain. Still, one's left to feel for her character if only because of the play's confusing climax.
Thomasin Savaiano is a conundrum as Nicky, Mary's caregiver and BB's partner, and that's a good thing! We're never quite sure about Nicky's agenda and Savaiano is brilliant in playing her chameleon-like quality to appear as the sole confident to whomever is onstage. Steven Carpenter gives a respectable performance as Fowles, Joe's former "lift boy" and now chief assistant. Carpenter's Fowles has a jittery quality about him which conveys that despite the fancy suit, he's still a "lift boy" in BB's eyes and he knows that.
Matching the unevenness of the play were its costume and set design. Sigríd Jóhannesdottir's female costumes were gorgeous and conveyed the style of upper class fashion in the late thirties. This included silk skirts, brooch jewelry and thick high-heeled shoes. The same cannot be said of his male costumes which were an odd assortment of men's suits and too modern for the play's time period. Carl Gudenius' set conveys the grandeur of BB's Italian villa, I Tatti, but much like Jóhannesdottir's designs contains several flaws. Most notably were the books in BB's study, many of which seem to have been published post-1937. It's a small detail, but in a two-set play, one that shouldn't be ignored. Furthermore, these more modern books would seem an affront to BB's and Mary's classical style.
Laura Giannarelli's direction keeps the play tight and fluid, but can't hide the moments that need to be cut. Still, despite the problems in The Old Masters, Giannarelli is able to create solid moments late in Act One between Nicky and BB and in the aforementioned Act Two scene.
For a play with an identity crises at its heart, it only seems fitting that The Old Masters doesn't quite decide on its own identity as well.
Run time is two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission. The Old Masters plays thru January 26th at Washington Stage Guild 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20001. For tickets, call (240) 582-0050 or purchase them online.
Graphic (L-R): Conrad Feininger as Sir Joseph Duveen and David Bryan Jackson as Bernard Berenson (BB) in The Old Masters. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.