Good Nudes

The Credeaux Canvas is the third recent play about painters, and I was prepared to resent it. Instead, it turned out the best of the lot, better even than most plays about non-painters. Keith Bunin’s serious comedy concerns three friends in their twenties in an East Village attic apartment shared by Winston, a gifted art student, and Jamie, a low-level real-estate agent. For the past six months, Amelia, a struggling chanteuse, has moved in as Jamie’s lover. Jamie’s wealthy art-dealer father has just died, leaving his son nothing except sudden despair begetting a vengeful, foolhardy scheme.

For an art-school thesis, Winston has been copying, brilliantly, a still life by the great, obscure dead painter Jean-Paul Credeaux, who is soon to be discovered, especially as more and more of his nudes keep surfacing. The plan is for Winston to paint a Credeaux nude – with Amelia posing – supposedly inherited by Jamie from his father, to be sold to Tess, a rich widow client of the father and already the proud possessor of a genuine Credeaux still life. She is stubbornly and stupidly sure of her own expertise and never consults experts: The fake Credeaux should make the young people’s fortune.

Winston and Amelia very reluctantly go along with the scheme, which brings much farce and drama to three young lives. Among other things, Amelia, nervous about posing in the nude, is emboldened when Winston, too, strips to paint her, which soon leads to a hectic love triangle. (The nude scene is played so naturally by the two gifted actors that the spectators take it easily in their stride.) The plot twists this way and that over a four-year span, sometimes slightly straining belief but never relaxing its hold on the attention.

Bunin writes dialogue that is charming, funny, at times deliberately awkward, full of headlong starts and tongue-tied stops, rather in the delightful mode of Kenneth Lonergan. You feel empathetic anxiety for the characters even as you laugh and rejoice with them, however amoral or harebrained their meanderings. It is a dance on the razor’s edge that requires expert production, which from the sure-footed direction of Michael Mayer and the nifty design team of Derek McLane, Michael Krass, and Kenneth Posner, it gets in spades.

The acting is perfect. Glenn Howerton’s Jamie hovers wonderfully between crazy self-assurance in intrigue and pathetic fragility in love. Lee Pace’s Winston is near-horizontally laid-back one moment, jack-in-the-boxishly resurgent the next – now with a bumbling stammer, now with torrential volubility. As Amelia, Annie Parisse is prodigious, playing virtually four different women in one. She negotiates the transitions with total ease, absolute credibility, and irresistible appeal. As the silly but not so stupid Tess, E. Katherine Kerr contributes a bravura cameo. Can you ask for more?

There is also, however, the worst recent play about painters, art curators, demented parents, tormented sons, and a batch of fiendishly zany pilgrims in Rome for the Holy Year, as well as additional caricatural others. This is the worthy John Guare’s latest and least play, Chaucer in Rome, a misbegotten sequel to Guare’s delicious best, The House of Blue Leaves. It is so murky that I am sure only that it takes place mostly in Rome, and that it has nothing to do with Chaucer. For the rest, make of it what you will – or can.

The farce is in the hysterical-absurdist mode, leaping from excess to excess, part souped-up gazelle, part nastily laughing hyena. It could have been written by a fatally navel-gazing author or by four baboons adoring a typewriter. I won’t waste your time or mine trying to summarize the unspeakable, but will tell you that the usually deft Nicholas Martin could not direct any sense into the senselessness that swallowed alive even such valiant actors as Dick Latessa, Polly Holliday, and the especially apt Bruce Norris.

Carrie Preston thrashes about helplessly, and Jon Tenney, as a frantic artist poisoned by the venom in his paints – the only ones he can work with – lacks any resources to mitigate the mess. Worst of all is Lee Wilkof, who with wildly varying wigs gives the selfsame crude performance as four outré characters and who, when meant to speak Italian, sounds like a high-school-imitation Sid Caesar.

After last month’s appalling Peter Brook Tragedy of Hamlet, the play cut to shreds and loaded down with every imaginable and some unimaginable nonsense (only Mrs. Brook, the marvelous Natasha Parry, as Gertrude, managed to surmount this inferno), you would have thought that John Caird’s Royal National Theatre Hamlet, also at bam, would have it made. Indeed, with much to quibble about, there was also much to admire; but what can you make of a Hamlet lacking a Hamlet and an Ophelia?

Simon Russell Beale is an able actor in character parts (I especially enjoyed his London Thersites), but can the princely Dane be short, stout, homely, and overage? Can he, unlike some fat men, move without nimbleness, chop his verse-speaking into jagged fragments, have a strident voice that in the high register becomes a squeal, and not display the least smidgen of charm? And can the Ophelia of Cathryn Bradshaw be a plodding, buxom milk- or barmaid with a smarmy voice and no sense of her role – not to mention misdirected and miscostumed in the mad scenes?

Otherwise, the production had its strong points. Despite uncalled-for infusions of Christian symbolism, Tim Hatley’s scenery, Paul Pyant’s lighting, and John Cameron’s music achieved some lovely effects. The supporting cast ranged from adequate to proficient, the two Peters (Blythe as Polonius, McEnery as Claudius) being particularly noteworthy; and Caird’s cuts, rearrangements of sequences, and canny directorial details were often captivating.

Other things misfired. You can’t cut Fortinbras and the great “How all occasions” speech with impunity; you don’t want Claudius’s reaction to The Mousetrap to be ludicrous; Gertrude should not be rummaging in a trunk full of mementoes; the dying Hamlet should not remain vertical long after all others are flattened; the entire cast should not promptly arise from the dead (one ghost is amply sufficient); etc. Still, a watchable Hamlet if you could get past the catastrophic lovers, seemingly turned into Pandarus and As You Like It’s Audrey.

The Credeaux Canvas
By Keith Bunin; directed by Michael Mayer. At Playwrights Horizons.
Chaucer in Rome
By John Guare; directed by Nicholas Martin. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
By Shakespeare; directed by John Caird. At BAM (closed).

Good Nudes