Ten Unknowns At The Taper

Review by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- The title of Jon Robin Baitz's play at the Mark Taper Forum refers to a famous showing by ten artists in a New York gallery circa 1950. Among the neophytes whose work was displayed to good effect was Malcolm Raphelson (the charismatic Stacey Keach), a painter from L.A.'s Jewish ghetto who went on to win fame for his powerful, realistic canvases. A street-smart child of the Depression, Raphelson honed his craft in the Left-leaning, WPA-sponsored art world of the times, only to find rejection and frustration when Abstract Expressionism became all the rage in the sixties.

Scornful of artists like Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky who threw paint around in free-form fashion or "pasted broken plates on canvases," Raphelson stuck to his realistic guns--and paid the price. His work was condemned and ignored, motivating him to leave the country for Mexico, where he lived in exile and obscurity for the next three decades.

When the play opens, Raphelson is visited in Oaxaca by Trevor Fabricant (Patrick Breen), a brisk art dealer in a three-button suit who is determined to mount a major retrospective of Raphelson's work in New York. The time is right for realism to make a comeback, he tells the painter. We can both succeeed in a big way with this show. Fame and riches will once more be yours.

Problem is, Raphelson has done more drinking than painting in recent years. And he is ambivalent toward fame, New York, the USA and the art world in general. His tirades against these subjects give TEN UNKNOWNS much of its zest and bite.

Fabricant is no fool, though. He has sent down an advance party in the person of Judd Sturgess (Jonathan M. Woodward), a young painter whose instructions are to help get Raphelson working again. Judd, who was once Fabricant's boyfriend (the homosexual subplot comes off as an unwieldy contrivance), finds himself caught up in an artistic and moral quandry.

Raphelson, he discovers (but does not reveal to Fabricant) is a blocked painter. He can "see" a painting--but the creative impulse does not get through to his hand. He needs Judd to put paint on canvas for him. The master can't do anything without his servant--and vice versa. Judd is unable to create without Raphelson calling the shots. Each man is incomplete without the other.

Into the mix comes Julia Bryant (Klea Scott), a fetching American biologist down in Oaxaca to help save an endangered species of frog. Touched by her idealism (and beauty), Raphelson invites her to move into his house. Soon she is posing for him, but not even her nakedness and femininity are enough to snap him out of his artistic funk.

Here is where the inherent weakness of TEN UNKNOWNS is revealed. Raphelson is a character who never changes; trapped in a pathological bind, he is too damaged and helpless to ever alter the course of his life and become a successful painter again. It's a personal failure attributable, Baitz would have us believe, to the difficult problems he had with his imposing, strong-willed mother whose portrait (painted for the Taper by Conor Foy) fills the stage in Act Two.

The truth of failed realist painters like Raphelson is a lot more complicated and political than that, and it's a shame Baitz, ordinarily a socially conscious playwright, did not chose to explore it. What happened in post-war America was that powerful social forces, led and financed by the CIA, launched a surreptitious attack on the social-realism painters of the 30s and 40s. For proof of this, read The Cultural Cold War--The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders (The New Press, 2000).

The CIA, as part of its propaganda struggle against the Soviet Union, took up the cause of Abstract Expressionism. "We recognized that this was the kind of art that did not have anything to do with socialist realism, and made socialist realism look even more stylized and more rigidly confined that it was," said a CIA official.

The CIA's deep pockets and influence with arts foundations, museums (especially NY's Museum of Modern Art), magazines, critics and artists themselves, was aimed at selling the world on the notion that Abstract Expressionism was "free enterprise painting," and that modern art "in its infinite variety and ceaseless exploration was the foremost symbol of democracy."

The CIA and its collaborators succeeded so well in their secret mission that, as painter Adam Gopnick said, "two generations of realists were forced to live in basements and pass still-lifes around like samizdat."

By missing, or ignoring, the true story of what happened to painters like Malcolm Raphelson, Baitz has ended up with an oblique, solipsistic drama which, despite excellent acting and stagecraft, doesn't work. TEN UNKNOWNS is a minor psychological riff on a grand, symphonic theme.

(Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.TaperAhmanson.com)