Arte Americano

Ars longa, vita brevis, goes the old Roman saying, and it remains true today. While decades and centuries come and go, art endures. The tumult of prerevolutionary Russia is by now a dim memory, but Chekhov's plays remain to recall the era. So it is with the plays of Jon Robin Baitz, an expatriate South African whose tales of and about New York City at the turn of the 21st Century may linger long after that just-passed era turns into a chapter of history. His plays are filled with educated, anxiety-ridden professionals aware of their failings but unsure of what to do about them. Like Chekhov's characters, Baitz's people seem mired in indecision and self-doubt, maintaining façades of urbanity that mask raw passions -- desire and fear foremost. This pattern continues in Baitz's Ten Unknowns, now in its Florida premiere at GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel. Set in a small Mexican village in 1992, the play serves up some interesting, flawed characters and witty conversation while posing a number of ethical dilemmas. Although those seeking dramatic action may come away disappointed, Joseph Adler's evocative production makes for an evening of thoughtful, insightful theater.

The story line is simple, perhaps overly so. Trevor Fabricant, a nervous New York art dealer, has stumbled on a poster of a 1949 art show featuring "Ten Unknowns," up-and-coming artists. One of these was one Malcolm Raphelson, now an aging painter of landscapes and the human figure whose career ended abruptly with the onset of Abstract Expressionism. Trevor manages to find Raphelson, who left the country for Mexico in the early 1960s, living there in obscurity ever since. Hoping to prod Raphelson to create new works for a retrospective exhibition in New York, Trevor sends his ex-lover, Judd Sturgess, an aspiring but frustrated young artist, to be Raphelson's assistant. Meanwhile Raphelson takes up with Julia Bryant, a Berkeley-trained biologist who is studying the extinction of a subspecies of frogs in the area.

When Trevor arrives at the artist's colorful, shambling studio, he finds Raphelson strangely ambivalent to Trevor's efforts to revive his career. Julia encourages Raphelson to work with Trevor but then discovers a strange psychological war under way between the artist and his assistant and a long-buried secret that is tormenting them both. The story, which offers an intriguing insider look at the modern art scene, unfolds in a series of pointed, brilliant conversations. Ideas crackle and spark in Ten Unknowns, as the subject matter leaps from media manipulation of fame to the nature of authenticity to the proper ethical response to eco-disaster. The conversations barrel along, referencing Hemingway, Dante, Diego Rivera, J.M.W. Turner, and New York-centric minutiae. If you can keep up with this high-flying talk, you'll have a grand time, but like his characters, Baitz isn't too keen on letting anyone else in on the details. You either know where and what NoHo is or you don't. Still Baitz's dialogue is peppered with sharp quips and epigrams. When Trevor wants Raphelson's new painting to be large enough to make an impact on a gallery wall, Judd accuses him of being "a size queen." Gruff, ursine Raphelson growls about the new popularity of his once-sleepy village, now besieged by "bus tours, traveling pederasts, and Texans." All of this makes for thoughtful, often dryly funny writing, but it doesn't translate into gripping theater. Like Chekhov, Baitz is playing on the fringes of human experience, not portraying its essential struggles. Several significant plot points are discussed after the fact, and often, again as with Chekhov, over food and drink. Conversation is king in Ten Unknowns, and if you like that sort of thing, you'll be pleased. If not, well ...

As is the norm with GableStage, Adler's direction is clear and effective, balancing the colorful, romantic feel of the Mexican setting with a darker sensibility. Tim Connelly's studio set, with vibrant, saturated Mexican colors and huge ceiling beams, and Jeff Quinn's moody lighting ably abet the production's mood. The cast is solid if uneven. As Raphelson, Dennis Carrig brings a veteran performer's ease and a striking, silvery look that befits the role. What's missing, though, is a certain charisma that might explain why all the other characters are willing to subjugate themselves to him. The text doesn't offer any demonstration of this power -- no scene or sequence where Raphelson could wow the audience. Without star power, the other characters' actions make less sense. Adler and Carrig set up Raphelson as an artist without a mask -- he is who he is. This Raphelson isn't fighting to keep up appearances, so the production lacks a moment of unmasking -- when all pretenses are stripped away.

Unmasking is also the key to the role of Judd and, in this, Nicholas Richberg does well as the insecure, sneering assistant, ever ready with a quip. Richberg's Judd starts off as a smug loner but later is revealed to be a tormented, conflicted soul, caught up in a codependent nightmare, an unsettling descent that Richberg tracks nicely. Deborah L. Sherman does well as Julia, the brainy chatterbox, but she has to pull extra weight with the weakest-written role in the play -- some extended character confessions seem to leap out of nowhere. It's in the role of Trevor that Baitz finds his stride and perhaps his alter ego. Trevor is an insecure expatriate caught up in the New York art scene, walking a tightrope between high-society éclat and financial disaster. Heath Kelts is superb in the role, delivering a complex palette of primary and secondary colors. In one memorable sequence, ex-lover Judd makes a joking suggestion about quickie sex to Trevor while in the presence of the other characters. The series of emotional responses Trevor goes through -- from surprise to doubt to glee to embarrassment -- is priceless.

Baitz always has a flair for character, but he has a real lock on Trevor, who like Baitz is marginalized by his sexuality and his ethnic and national identities -- the ultimate expatriate. He continues to depict an uprooted, restless sensibility -- the obsession with public image, the lonely search for emotional connection, the thirst for authenticity. Ten Unknowns isn't gripping theater, but it's elegant and unpatronizing, and Gable-Stage's decision to produce it is in itself something of an affirmation. Not so long ago, Adler's company was one of the few voices for provocative, challenging theater in South Florida, when the common wisdom was that only rehashed musicals and revues would work here. Now that more companies have followed that lead, a local audience of literate, demanding playgoers appears to be gaining momentum.