nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 3, 2005
A Picasso is a fascinating, thought-provoking exploration of art and its meaning, wrapped inside a taut, smart wartime suspense thriller. It takes place in a vault below the streets of Paris on an October afternoon in 1941. The Nazi occupation is in full force, and so even a famous man like Picasso isn't entirely surprised that a pair of trench-coated operatives have brought him to this prison-like, windowless room for no apparent reason.
Enter Miss Fischer, a German cultural official—attractive, but all business. She quickly explains to the artist why he's been summoned: the Nazis are planning an exhibition of confiscated "decadent" art and they want to make sure that they include in it a work by the master. They've got three small paintings that they believe are his, but they need to be authenticated. This exhibition is important: they're going to burn the works, and they don't wish to burn a forgery. They need a Picasso.
So the brilliant painter finds himself confronted with an odd artistic version of Sophie's Choice: which of the three paintings will he choose to identify as he own, and thus sacrifice to the bonfire; which will he denounce and therefore save from destruction? The route to the resolution of Picasso's dilemma takes him and Miss Fischer—who proves to be not so much his nemesis as his confessor and muse—through a consideration of what his work actually signifies. Can a work of art be political? Can it not be? Can it change anything? What are the links between social consciousness and genius?
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher lets us eavesdrop on a riveting debate here (it's not clear from the program notes how much of what's depicted here actually happened, but the essence of the conversation as recounted here feels resoundingly authentic). Picasso and Miss Fischer's discussion, like most art, has a subtext—perhaps more than one. The main one here is Guernica, the extraordinary mural that Picasso created after the Germans destroyed a small Spanish city to flex their muscles in service of their presumed ally Franco. Picasso made Guernica, he tells Fischer, because he was absent from his homeland's Civil War; whatever overt political significance it may have, it's clear as he speaks about it that its resonance for the artist is more purely emotional and personal. Nevertheless, the Nazis think Guernica means what it seems to mean, and one of the choices Picasso is called upon to make during this meeting is whether or not to repudiate any anti-German message in the work.
Hatcher works out his plot's puzzles neatly and satisfyingly, and along the way gives us much to consider about what art is for, what it can do, and the ways it can move men and mountains. A Picasso is both entertaining and enlightening as a result. This production, well-staged by John Tillinger, offers the pleasure of two excellent performances by Dennis Boutsikaris and Jill Eikenberry as equally matched adversaries. Boutsikaris's Picasso is passionate and mercurial, a shrewd survivor who turns on his well-honed eccentric charm as both a kind of con and a form of protection. Eikenberry's Fischer operates directly from the intellect, which I loved; her own passion and desire for what Picasso creates comes out of her head and heart rather than her loins. She's more bottled-up than he is, but she's also more self-aware and self-assured. The confrontation between sensual genius and brilliantly analytical critic is electric.