- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and there are roughly a gazillion words in Ariel Dorfman’s long-winded, exposition-encumbered new play, “Picasso’s Closet,” an industriously staged world premiere at Theater J directed by John Dillon.

The play comes off as an uneasy amalgam of a whodunit, the “what if?” construct of Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen,” magic realism, and a non-singing “Sunday in the Park With George” in its treatment of a brilliant, absorbed artist and his neglected muse. It takes a cubist, time-bending look at what exactly Picasso (Mitchell Hebert) was up to while the Germans occupied Paris during World War II. The play also — and this is the detective part — imagines that Picasso did not die in 1973 at the ripe old age of 92 but was murdered by an art-appreciating Nazi (Saxon Palmer) in 1944.

Who knew that between wielding paintbrushes and bedding a dizzying succession of women, the dedicated artist and his circle were champion gum-flappers? After three hours of blowing hot air — the motormouths have a gift of gab and a prosecuting attorney’s memory for dates and times — you determine that it is no mystery what Picasso was doing for four years in German-occupied Paris. He was jawing.

Meant to be startling, ambiguous and perceptions-smashing, “Picasso’s Closet” examines the role of an artist in an occupied country. Do you lie low and create? Do you fight for the cause, or do you use your fame and influence to save others? Picasso chose a neutral stance during World War II, staying and working in France but not having any exhibitions. Some artists accused him of cowardice because he did not step forward to help his persecuted friends, but no one knows what went on during those years, and the artist left few clues.

Fascinating premise, but “Picasso’s Closet” is no Picasso. It’s like re-creating “Guernica” with an Etch-a-Sketch. Perhaps a play conjecturing about the artist’s lost years would make a satisfying evening of theater, but the playwright gums up the works with a heavy-handed harangue against the Nazis’ campaign against so-called “degenerate art” as well as the time-warp subplot about Picasso’s postulated murder.

There has to be some sort of internal logic to pull off something like this; otherwise, the audience is pulled out of the play with thoughts like, “How come certain characters can time-travel and others can’t?” Not good. It doesn’t work for the new film “The Lake House,” and it doesn’t work for “Picasso’s Closet.”

The characters also seem to be cut out of a Famous Artists paper-doll kit. Mr. Hebert pulls out all the cliches to portray Picasso as a bullish fellow in a striped T-shirt and bohemian sandals. All he lacks is the beret and smock. His devoted muse, Dora Maar (Katherine Clarvoe), must have been a force of nature to captivate the artist’s attention for so many years. Here, though, she seems merely whiny and paranoid.

More problematic is the Nazi, Albert Lucht, played with one-track fervor by Mr. Palmer. You never get much insight into this jackbooted angel of death, except that apparently he’s been warped by reading Janson’s “The History of Art” one too many times. Sure, Lucht’s a twisted, perverted killer, but he’s guilty of a far more heinous crime: He thinks he has taste.

As a journalist who writes “What if?” books, Kathleen Coons hops in and out of the decades like a Mexican jumping bean with a typewriter. The rest of the cast is largely wasted as Picasso’s hangers-on and drop-ins.

Still, you have to say this for “Picasso’s Closet”: You definitely have gotten your money’s worth when a play ends with the histrionic cry “Life! Life! Life!” a few notes of “La Marseillaise” and an “Ole!” or two thrown in for good measure.

*1/2

WHAT: “Picasso’s Closet,” by Ariel Dorfman

WHERE: Theater J DC-JCC, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through July 23.

TICKETS: $15 to $40

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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