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A CurtainUp Review
These are pictures . A Picasso is a painting
---Chéron, the art dealer about Modigliani's canvases, during the most incisive scene in the bio-drama about three days during the painter's darkest period.
William Adabie and  Nandana Sen
William Adabie and Nandana Sen (Photo: Robert Castle)
If there's a prize for self-indulgent, wrong-headed direction, it should go to Robert Castle for the bio-drama Modigliani, about the painter best known for his finely drawn, elongated portraits. When first produced Off-Broadway in 1978, with Jeffrey DeMunn in the title role, Modiligiani was positively received, but this latest revival seems to have drained away its vitality so that it doesn't work as biography or drama.

The director has divided the three act play into two parts which is fine. But he has also stretched the three day timeline during which the ill and disheartened painter awaits the visit of an influential art dealer into an interminable three hours. At the performance I attended, this prompted an intermission exodus unlike any I recall, with sporadic additional exits during the second act.

The evening begins promisingly enough. To put us in the right frame of mind, a rotating gallery of paintings are projected on a large easel at the side of the stage. This easel-projector is used throughout, but, as it turns out, insufficiently so. After all, this is a play about not just one but three artists: Amadeo Modigliani and his carousing buddies Chaim Soutine and Maurice Utrillo, all outsiders in the Paris art world of 1917. Not to be overlooked, is the much talked about but never seen ultimate insider, Pablo Picasso. Given the way the story plays out on the central playing area, more illustrations of the work discussed would be most welcome. At minimum a reproduction of the nude that figures importantly in the plot arc should have been included.

Signals of pacing problems to come are evident from the moment the lights dim and the audience is left in the dark too long and for no apparent purpose. But the really wrong-headed aspects of this revival are most evident in the scene shifts in between the play's eleven scenes. Instead of settling for a simple unit set, props are constantly moved. These scenery shifts are turned into little dramas with the prop movers, dressed as gendarmes and maids, often mumbling bits of dialogue. None of this is specified in the script which in fact includes an author's note expressing his preference for total simplicity and a reliance on costumes and lighting rather than props. By my guesstimate, this distracting intra-scene business takes up thirty to forty minutes and also seems to go with the lack of acknowledgement to the playwright in the program. (Aren't audiences likely to want at least a brief author bio that would make mention of McIntyre's two other plays, Split Second and National Anthem?).

The cast of seven struggles valiantly with the overheated, snail-paced direction. William Abadie has the dark good looks for which the real Modigliani was known. The coughing spasms that sound as if the man is going to expire well before the end of the play practically disappear after the first few scenes. Adabie has a nice turn with his muse, Beatrice (a very credible performance by Nandana Sen) but his and the play's best scene is the meeting with the art dealer, Guillaume Cheron (Bruno Gelormini almost saving the evening as the cruel art dealer).

McIntyre gave his characters some interesting things to say about art and the life of those making art. The three painters are fascinating examples of artists struggling with their inner demons as well as their careers. But the drunken scenes, in which Soutine (Panos Makedonas) and Utrillo (Jacob Battat) play their parts like two fools out of Shakespeare undermine the strength of the text and the powerful final scene when Modigliani, in destroying his work, regains his drive to pick up his pen and brush again.

This is the second play about well-known artists I've seen within a fortnight. As watching a Tennessee Williams play or Anna Magnani movie proved preferable to Roman Nights which chronicled their friendship, so visiting a museum to look at Modigliani's and his friends' paintings is likely to be more rewarding than this three-hour soap opera.

Written by Dennis McIntyre
Directed by Robert Castle.
Cast: William Abadie (Modigliani), Jacob Battat (Utrillo), Panos Makedonas (Soutine), Nandana Sen (Beatrice), Amadeo Riva and Marcel Simoneau (Waiters), Jack Michel-Bernard (Leopold Zborowski, Bruno Gelarmini (Guillaume Cheron).
Set Design: Alejandra Orozco
Costume Design: Kim Matela
Lighting Design: Doug Filomena
Sound Design: Joel Douek
Running time: 3 hours, including one intermission
Citicorp Center 619 Lexington Ave (at 54th and Lexington) 212/239-6200
8/19/02-10/06/02. Tuesday - Saturday @8PM, Saturday & Sunday @2:30PM -- $30
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 20th performance.
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