"The Old Masters"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
What went wrong with “The Old Masters,” the new show now at Long Wharf? Its credentials are impeccable. Its British playwright Simon Gray (who died in 2008) was known for his dark, biting comedies, exemplified in “Butley” and “Quartermaine’s Terms.” Furthermore, this production, under Michael Rudman’s direction, offers a dream cast of Sam Waterston, Brian Murray, and Shirley Knight.
Why, then, is this latest Long Wharf offering so disappointing? As it turns out, the problem lies with the play itself, not with the performances. The best of playwrights, it seems, can falter on occasion.
Though “The Old Masters” deals with intriguing themes—money, greed, the art world, old friendships, old rivalries, old love affairs, and imminent deaths—it does not shape up as a strong drama. The play is a mish mash, as Gray tackles these numerous subjects. Lacking is the arc of a well-shaped, strong story line, with a build-up of tension.
Even though Gray had taken on a true piece of history, it does not save the play. Gray deals with the noted art critic Bernard Berenson and his long-running rivalry—and friendship—with art dealer Joseph Duveen. Moreover, Gray should have made more of that time and place--pre-World War II, with Il Duce in power and Hitler already rattling sabers. Both Berenson and Duveen were Jews, and “The Old Masters” should have reflected the growing menace to his characters (which would have given more substance to the play).
In addition, Gray takes too long to get to this core of the play. The first act deals entirely with Berenson’s domestic affairs—his romantic entanglements, past and present—and his diminished status as an art critic. But not until Act Two does Gray get to the long-overdue heart of the matter. Duveen has a chance to sell a painting, and desperately wants Berenson’s attribution, which he can translate into hard cash. Berenson, in turn, desperately needs money, and Duveen will pay him well for this attribution.
So much for this inept tale. Nevertheless, it is a deep pleasure to watch these fine actors do their thing. Waterston creates a many-layered Berenson, with his array of conflicting emotions—petulance, pride, honor, vulnerability. And Shirley Knight, as his long-suffering wife, milks every one of her lines for its richness and diversity. She is a joy to hear, to watch. But it is, ultimately, Brian Murray, who brings this hobbling play to life. He makes the most of his wild, flamboyant Duveen, from the moment of his comic, exciting entry. And indeed, the play comes to life as he locks horns with Waterston/Berenson through the length of the second act. Murray manages with every gesture to reveal the heart and soul of this controversial character.
All told, it is thumbs down for “The Old Masters,” thumbs up for its excellent cast—still a worthy reason to attend the Long Wharf show.
Feb. 1, 2011