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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
The Old Masters
Set near Florence Italy in 1937, just as Mussolini is coming to power, Bernard Berenson (Waterston) and Joseph Duveen (Murray) form a partnership that could take the art world by storm. Duveen, an expert in the "old masters," influences the makeup of private art collections as well as those housed in the world's most prestigious museums. Despite a prior falling out, he offers a partnership to Berenson, but there's a catch. He wants Berenson, an expert on Renaissance art and the final word when it comes to attributing works to their artists, to authenticate "The Adoration of the Shepherds" (now at the National Gallery in Washington) as a Giorgione. Berenson's attribution of the painting as a Giorgione would verify it in the art community and increase its value, and consequentially, the commission he would receive.
Berenson is enamored with the painting, but not because he's in the presence of a rare Giorgione. Instead, he's filled with admiration at the skill of the artist he's sure has painted the work to look like the master's: Giorgione's student, Titian.
A verbal duel ensues during which Berenson, who's facing financial hardship brought on during the Great Depression and pressured by his deluded and ailing wife Mary (Shirley Knight) to provide funds for her children's perpetual care, must decide whether family or reputation is more important. To flesh out the situation of the art attribution, we see Berenson in his villa (nicely designed by Alexander Dodge) with his wife and his mistress/assistant Nicky Mariano (Heidi Schreck who is convincing as the unappreciated mistress and who does a nice job of aging her character in the last scene, which takes place years after the war). However, we never understand how this arrangement was made — why the women seem fine with it or why they tolerate his infidelities with others, the most recent of whom is a Swedish masseuse.
Actually, it's difficult to imagine why one, never mind three or more women, would be so attracted to the priggish, Berenson. Perhaps credit that we believe it at all is due to Waterston's fine portrayal (after all, he managed to make the rather straight-and-narrow and unbending DA Jack McCoy on TV's Law and Order interesting enough to watch for more than 15 years). This character, however, is black and white, with too unexplained shades of gray. We're thus left wondering why a man so flawed personally and who fudges one attribution of a painting to help victims gassed by Mussolini won't bend on the Titian?
Brian Murray's is skilled, as always, as the jolly, cigar-loving, "give-me-a-hug" Duveen. He serves as countepoint to Berenson and adds some needed humor, but his character too tends to confuse -- as when in one scene he apparently gets excited about sniffing his cigar but in a way that gives the impression that he's having a seizure.
The play's brightest moments are when Shirley Knight is on the stage, though her character could use more development, she shows a good range of emotion in playing what's there. She's the embodiment of class and stage presence and steals every scene. She and Waterston have good chemistry, as well. Completing the cast is a solid Rufus Collins as Edward Collins, a go-between in the relationship of Duveen and Berenson. .
Unfortunately, the dialogue tends to often sound stilted, with pauses so thick that you could cut them with a knife. At a moment crucial to the plot, Duveen loses his train of thought, but we assume it's just another long pause. Director Michael Rudman's pacing overall is slow with even the scene changes seeming to take forever but most frustratingly, he places the painting which is so beautiful that it moves everyone who sees it, so that iit faces upstage. Consequently, the audience never gets to share the admiration —at least not until near the end when it is projected on the sides of the stage, but by then, it's too late.
Long Wharf Theatre has a long history of performing Gray's works, including Quartermaine's Terms, which transferred to Off Broadway where it won an OBIE Award for ensemble performance. In addition, Long Wharf The Common Pursuit. The Old Masters first was presented in 2004 in London's West End.
No dates have been announced for the Broadway engagement.