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Mexican Malaise

Jon Robin Baitz's Ten Unknowns is a fine but flawed work about a fallow artist hibernating in remote Mexico.

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Jon Robin Baitz is one of our most stimulating playwrights, but just possibly the most uneven. Some of his plays even veer, from act to act, from antic to anticlimax. Yet you must hand it to him: He doesn't repeat himself. Even at his least good, he finds new ways of being bad.

Ten Unknowns is, in my view, an equation with too many unknowns. The biggest of them is what the piece is trying to say as it ends in a shaggy-dog-drawing story. I can't explain that drawing without giving away too much, so let's just call it shaggy dog. A once-promising WPA painter, Malcolm Raphelson, went to Mexico to assist Diego Rivera and remained there. In a ramshackle home-cum-studio, he drinks mescal, enjoys Mexican movies and radio, and avoids people and painting.

It is 1992, and Trevor Fabricant, a SoHo art dealer who has been supporting him, shows up chez Malcolm, which has no telephone. The year before, Trevor sent his boyfriend, Judd Sturgess, a gifted but drug-addicted young art-school graduate, to be Mal's assistant and spurrer-on. And indeed, Malcolm has started painting again in a new, very different style, which Trevor hopes to present in a New York retrospective. But the oddball painter won't even show him his new paintings. Judd, too, seems to have slacked off, except during bitter quarrels with Mal.

Meanwhile, the 72-year-old artist has run into an attractive 30-year-old grad student from San Francisco, Julia Bryant, trying to do field work on the glass frog, a dying or extinct species. Monolingual, untraveled, and rather lost, Julia is taken in by Malcolm and becomes the catalyst for a not wholly unpredictable revelation. The interaction among these four characters is the stuff of this sometimes overheated, sometimes lethargic play, alternately pointed and pointless.

When I eventually read the text, I realized how dazzling Daniel Sullivan's direction and everybody's performance was. Threadbareness was gorgeously glossed over by Donald Sutherland's quirkily fascinating Malcolm, Justin Kirk's amusingly embittered Judd, Julianna Margulies's impressionable yet resilient Julia, and Denis O'Hare's infuriating but droll Trevor. Much of the dialogue has people talking over or under one another, a tricky and trying business director and cast have managed expertly.

An atmospheric set by Ralph Funicello, telling costumes by Jess Goldstein, and moody lighting by Pat Collins help considerably. But there is something unfulfilled about this intermittently sparkly but ultimately uncommunicative work.

Jessica Hagedorn, a Philippines-born performance artist and writer, has adapted her novel Dogeaters into what is nominally a play. Contrary to popular belief, novels do not readily lend themselves to such dislocation; it is rather like trying to turn a German shepherd into a Yorkie.

Miss Hagedorn has clearly made an organizing effort: She has compressed three decades into the year 1982, has used surtitles to establish kaleidoscopic Manila and other locales, and has pruned the number of characters. Even so, the play has 33 parts performed by fifteen actors, which is tough on author, cast, and audience alike. The doubling adds to the confusion, as do some references too arcane for Americans. Thick accents, during the frequently shouted dialogue, congeal the opacity as too many characters are doing barely sketched-in things. It takes great art from a playwright and actors to make sense of such a swirling zoetrope of a play, and great art is conspicuous here by its absence. Dogeaters is for folks who groove on comic strips.

The thinness of the characters is matched by the ponderousness of the satire. How many times can a couple of shallow radio personalities chime in with glitzy spiel after some odious rape or murder? Why are all the principals weird: a half-black male whore and druggie who kills his uncle; a terminally swish hairdresser; a transvestite disco-and-coffee-shop manager; a smilingly exploitative nabob; a ruthless general who arranges the torture and gang rape of Daisy Avila, beauty queen and girlfriend of a murdered Communist; the general's ceaselessly praying wife, forever on her knees; and Daisy's father, the crusading Senator Avila, likewise murdered -- twice, both early and late in the play?

There are also the author's boring alter ego, her whinily desperate father, a naïvely amorous cinema cashier and her no-less-naïve boyfriend who dreams of movie stardom and ditches her, an oozingly oily radio heartthrob, and sundry others, including R. W. Fassbinder, guest of Imelda Marcos's Manila International Film Festival, and Imelda herself, who does not show off her shoe collection, thus robbing the play of what might have been its chief interest.

The big scenes -- Senator Avila urging his near-catatonic daughter to escape while she can, that same daughter turned guerrilla in the mountains and trying to coax an account of her father's shooting from its only witness, the male prostitute -- fall as flat as the rest. In the curtain line, the author herself declares, "My soap opera continues -- the soap opera of the Philippines continues." Trying to crossbreed cynical and sentimental, you end up with cartoonish. Perhaps the whole thing would have sounded better in Tagalog.

Michael Greif, who commissioned this mess, directed it as caricaturally as it was written, which is probably the only way. The usually clever set designer David Gallo tried hard for his customary merriment, but the invention (or was it the money?) runs out. Costumes (Brandin Barón) and lighting (Michael Chybowski) are apt, but can only provide this Manila with an envelope empty of genuine content. Someone in the play speaks of teaching creative writing to autistic children; on the evidence of Dogeaters, there is hope for them.

Until it got Reba McEntire and Brent Barrett for its leads, the revival of Annie Get Your Gun coasted along between bouts of unfocused busyness and bland stagnation. Miss McEntire, however, is (Mc)entirely the real McCoy, every expression, intonation, and gesture enchantingly authentic. She speaks with uncanny timing in the most doggone delicious accent, and sings with irresistible sorcery. Brent Barrett instills Frank Butler with insidious charm, suave orneriness, and vibrant vocalism, making hay even with the silliest Las Vegasy stunts inflicted on him. There is also a splendid Buffalo Bill from Conrad John Schuck; this Annie has finally got its gun, its gumption, and its act together.

Ten Unknowns
By Jon Robin Baitz.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan at Lincoln Center Theater.
Dogeaters
By Jessica Hagedorn.
Directed by Michael Greif at the Public Theatre.


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