The Last Bohemians
nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
September 11, 2005
When you think of eastern Long Island, bohemian artists and poets who led a movement in American cultural history are not foremost in mind. That is, unless you know the lives of the New York-based artists of the 1950s and '60s such as writer-curator-poet Frank O' Hara, saxophone player-turned-painter Larry Rivers and painter-muse Jane Freilicher. These three and others are portrayed in The Last Bohemians, which is written and directed by Stellios Manalakakis, to mixed results.
The play starts with Rivers and Patsy Southgate, a daughter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's chief of protocol and a co-founder of the Paris Review, as they attempt to write their eulogies of O'Hara after his sudden death. When words fail them, we see, through flashbacks, that final summer weekend when they were all together. Southgate, owner of a Hamptons summer home turned studio, invites O'Hara and Rivers along with others for a weekend of art, sex, alcohol, and drugs. O'Hara brings his long-suffering roommate and ex-boyfriend Joe LeSuer, a poet and writer who is also a Mormon and Joan Crawford's nephew; and the beautiful young surfer Golden, a composite character of two of O'Hara's real life protégés, the painter Michael Goldberg and poet Bill Berkson. Other houseguests are Rivers's ex-mother-in law and group nurturer Berdie Berger, with whom Rivers lived even after his divorce from her daughter and who was the subject of many of his nude paintings; and Jane Freilicher, Rivers's lover, a painter of the naturalist school.
O'Hara was the creator of a movement he called "Personism." Not only did artists borrow from each other's genres so that painters added poetry to their paintings and writers wrote in a freeform jazz style creating the forerunner of multimedia art, but they would mine personal experiences from their lives and those around them for their work. This creates a whole series of ethical questions about, among other things, the moral responsibility of an artist, that are examined beautifully in the script but unevenly by the actors.
For example, Berger, the mother-in-law, is not terribly bright, may not be able to discuss art on the same level of cultural sophistication as the rest, but every year she has a dinner, a "soul feast" to remember the dead and let them know how much they are loved. In turn, Rivers and O'Hara pet her, condescend to her, and tickle her deliberately until she wets herself. In one scene, Rivers commits a sex act upon her while she is asleep. He is a monster of selfishness for all of his brilliance and she is a simple woman who is the moral center of that universe. Although, in no way is this the sole message of the play, I felt that it was not grasped emotionally by the cast. That is not to say that the actors do not give it their all, especially Ian Tomaschik as Rivers. He has created a remarkable physical life for his character and Lucas Steele as Golden, the aptly named young man everyone is trying to seduce plays his part with just enough charm and simplicity to be deceptive.
But there were also intellectual ideas expressed by the characters in the script, and I felt they were not really given sufficient weight. Passionate conversations about art and the role of the artist in society are given short shrift in favor of the more hedonistic actions of casual sex and drug use. That's easy and fun to do on stage but if it can be matched with an intellectual and emotional understanding of the script, then there could be characters who are brilliant, beautiful, and reckless—as complex as the people on whom they are based.