Artist Descending a Staircase
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
September 10, 2005
Artist Descending a Staircase begins with the mysterious death of an artist. But this play is less a mystery and more a commentary on modern art. Beginning with the title’s riff on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, the last word in Cubist painting, playwright Tom Stoppard follows through by combining the names of famous artists to come up with his own: Beauchamp, Martello, and Donner. Throughout, he pushes and prods, manipulates and massages the world of modern art to very funny effect. And no one can poke more articulate holes in the puffed up theories of art than a nimble wordsmith like Stoppard.
The story begins in 1972 with the death of Donner, a hyperventilating painter in his 80s who, before his death, lived in a cramped garret with Martello, a sculptor, and Beauchamp, who records noises and silences. Their living conditions reveal that none has seen sustained success—after all, what successful artist would choose to share living quarters and studio space with two others? Martello and Beauchamp are listening to a revealing tape recorded by Beauchamp. On the tape, someone snores, there are footsteps, and a voice says "Ah, there you are," followed by a brief commotion. Martello and Beauchamp believe the tape contains the key to Donner’s death. They suspect each other of the evil deed. As they banter, we see flashbacks of the three artists in 1922, 1920, and 1914. They are confident, brash, and avant-garde, "artists by mutual agreement," although they do not appear to have interest in or respect for each others’ art. What is more important is that they are what they say they are, artists of a new order, where no comparisons to the excellent draftsmanship of the old guard can be made. Gone are the long apprenticeships.
In one flashback, Donner brings out a small statue made of sugar. He says, "Imagine my next exhibition thrown open to the hungry. Edible art is what we’ve all been looking for." Is this a dig at Claes Oldenburg’s soft food sculptures or Wayne Thiebaud’s Pop paintings of pies and cakes?
During a pivotal flashback, Young Martello, played by Aaron Michael Zook, brings an attractive blind woman to their studio/flat for tea. As it happens, she knows of the three artists. She attended a gallery opening where they exhibited together before she completely lost her sight. She fancied one of them and now wants to figure out which is the one. As Sophie recalls, each artist was photographed with one of his paintings. She describes the painting, and they all remember it. The artist is chosen. Yet, did they see the painting she, their public, saw? This is a deciding moment of the play and its most memorable scene. Mary Murphy brings layers of psychology to her role as Sophie, and the play is at its most engaging when she is on stage. She is an eager, sociable guest, who displays her vulnerability with charm. Murphy is so convincing in her blindness that the audience collectively holds its breath when Sophie responds to Martello’s insistence that she pour the tea. It is a selfish little game that he inflicts on her and Zook pulls it off with a sly smile. Sophie is the outsider. Yet, she embraces them, entertains them, and adores them. They, in turn, toy with her. It is she who sees clearly what they fail to see. In her own way, she abandons them. They are left to age in their loveless, failed lives with their hostilities toward one another.
The young artists and the octogenarians are played by separate cast members. Joe Whelski as Young Donner delivers a quiet susceptibility, as if he knows or wants something that he cannot talk about. But it is the Elder Donner, played by Ronald Cohen, who comments on modern art: "Imagination without skill gives us modern art." In another excellent flashback, Michael Poignand delivers a spirited Young Beauchamp. He gallops around the stage clicking coconut halves together replicating the sound of horse hooves, an omen of his obsession with sounds and the recording of them. It is a funny bit, and a not-so-subtle hint as to how some artists find inspiration. The other two barely tolerate his antics.
Tom Knutson plays the Elder Martello. He delivers the necessary arrogance, but occasionally strikes awkward poses that don’t make sense, such as sprawling languidly over the kitchen table which is not long enough to make it an elegant pose. Ed Schultz gives Old Beauchamp facial tics that look real. The dialog in this play is very smart, so sharp that it is a shame to miss any of it. Unfortunately, I did. Director John Hurley would do well to turn up the volume during the banter between Martello and Beauchamp. Otherwise, the play moves briskly under Hurley’s direction. The pace is especially impressive since the stage is small.
You don’t need to know anything about art to enjoy Artist Descending a Staircase. There is a mystery that is neatly solved. There is a love story. And, there is lots of word play that is entertaining.
The set, by Scott Orlesky, is very much a garret: grim curtains shield the artists’ studios, and a simple table and three chairs accommodate the eleven scenes. Cheryl McCarron designed costumes. Sophie’s green dress helps guarantee that all eyes will be on her. Carrie Wood designed lighting.