- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

Jon Robin Baitz’s “Ten Unknowns,” now onstage at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, is a portrait of the artist as an old man, and like most modern art, it won’t look nice hanging over your sofa.

Figurative painter Malcolm Raphelson (Timmy Ray James) is a drunk living in exile in Mexico, his creativity stymied and his days filled with squalor and bellicose outbursts.

In the late 1940s, he was an up-and-coming American artist of the social-realism school whose career was eclipsed by such abstract expressionists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder. The play shows Raphelson in 1992, nearly forgotten in the trendy New York art scene, now lionizing the likes of Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons.

His descent into obscurity is halted by the panting exertions of a prissy art dealer, Trevor Fabricant (Nigel Reed), who champions Raphelson’s early work and secures a major retrospective in an uptown gallery. Now all Trevor needs to do is get the artist to New York and include his latest paintings in the show.

The new paintings are the sticking point in “Ten Unknowns.” Trevor is dazzled by the “sense of theology” Raphelson searches for in his landscapes and portraits, the depth and maturity of these late-stage works. Yet the artist is reluctant to let them go. Is it because he deems them inferior? Or is there a darker reason, perhaps that the works were done by his young assistant, Judd Sturgess (Evan Casey)?

Raphelson and Judd exist in a warped, symbiotic partnership that’s heavy on macho banter and posturing. Judd was sent to Mexico to learn from the master; instead he finds subjugation and shame.

Raphelson tries to justify his actions, saying that great artists, from the Renaissance masters to Diego Rivera, used apprentices to paint the majority of their works.

Assistants give technical support; it is the artist who provides the divine fire, he explains.

Raphelson’s true, desperate motives are brought to light when Trevor shows up, but the stakes grow higher in the presence of Julia Bryant (Sarah Douglas), a graduate student studying Mexico’s vanishing frog population who becomes a late-breaking muse.

Raphelson is dying to ravish her and to paint her, but, brokenly, he admits that his hands cannot do what his eyes see and that his body cannot perform what his mind desires. In this insight, we see that “Ten Unknowns” is not about the tragedy of an artist who belongs to a certain time and the brevity of the creative span. His time has passed. All that’s left for Raphelson is the possibility of revenge.

“Ten Unknowns” is thickly layered with ideas and blowzy discussions about life, creative spark and art. Mr. Baitz is a talky playwright, and this work is like a crash course in art history crammed into 21/2 hours.

The highbrow discourse the characters utter does not seem natural in the mouths of a regular-guy artist who swills mescal first thing in the morning, a punky urbanite with a heroin problem and a young woman from Berkeley with a tendency to valley-girl exclamations of wonder and awe. The only character who seems to a mannerism born is Trevor, and Mr. Reed’s arch desperation in the role of an art toady is one of the production’s most polished and rarified aspects.

In keeping with the contrived nature of this production is Rick DesRochers’ over-the-top direction and setting. Mr. DesRochers has the actors re-enacting Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” onstage, howling and pulling at hair and flesh in anguish.

As Raphelson, who in demeanor resembles Nick Nolte’s famous mug shot after his driving-under-the-influence arrest, Mr. James caterwauls at such a high pitch that you begin to fear for his sanity — and yours.

Mr. Casey, a steady and promising young actor, also goes for the rococo in his portrayal of Judd, pouting and posturing as if on a fashion runway. By contrast, Miss Douglas is curiously flat and stagey as Julia.

Stephanie Nelson’s set, an expanse of paint-smeared surfaces, is ambitious but tests the limitations of Signature’s small space. During the play, Raphelson’s shack begins to break away, signifying his final descent into stasis. It gives way to a desert landscape that, unfortunately, looks like a mediocre mural painted on the side of a public building.

As “Ten Unknowns” proves, writing a compelling play about the creative process is about as easy as trying to explain Man Ray to your dog.


WHAT: “Ten Unknowns” by Jon Robin Baitz

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Through April 24.

TICKETS: $25 to $39

PHONE: 703/218-6500

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