Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bauer by Lauren Gunderson at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Sherman Howard, Stacy Ross, and Susi Damilano in BAUER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Bauer by Laura Gunderson, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in Midtown Manhattan, is a cleverly contrived, smartly written, and very well acted, imagined account of what might have occurred had Rudolf Bauer (Sherman Howard), his wife Louise (Susi Damilano), and his one-time lover Hilla von Rebay (Stacy Ross) actually met again in the months prior to Bauer’s death.  Of course they never did but Ms Gunderson has composed the purely fictionalized meeting well, using the conceit to tell Bauer’s real story in a most entertaining fashion, while engaging the audience in a counterfactual quest for “what might have been.”

In reality, Rudolf Bauer, a contemporary of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall, was a German painter and leader of the Non-Objective (abstract) art movement.  Between 1917 and the early 1920s, he had a love affair and shared an art studio with Hilla von Rebay and they remained friends for decades after their affair ended.  Subsequently, Hilla came to the United States where she met (and bedded) Solomon Guggenheim, introduced him to Bauer’s work and encouraged him to create a collection of Non-Objective art. 

In 1936, the Gibbes Museum of Art hosted the first public exhibition of Guggenheim’s collection of Non-Objective art and Bauer traveled to the US to attend the opening.  A year later, Guggenheim officially formed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to house his collection and appointed Hilla as its curator; ironically that was the same year that the Nazis staged the infamous Degenerate Art Show in Munich, a show designed to mock and threaten the abstract art movement, and in which they included Bauer’s work. The following year, Bauer was imprisoned by the Nazis for producing and selling his “degenerate art” but somehow Hilla and Guggenheim managed to extricate him and he emigrated to the US in 1939.

Bauer arrived in New York just after the Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in midtown Manhattan, living with Hilla for a few months before moving into one of Guggenheim’s homes in New Jersey. He then signed a new contract with Guggenheim, misunderstanding many of its implications because of his limited English: what he thought was to be a lump-sum payment for 110 paintings he already had provided to Guggenheim turned out to be a $300,000 trust fund from which he would receive monthly stipends; the major role he had expected to have in running the Guggenheim Foundation turned out to be no such thing; and, worst of all, he discovered that the contract committed him to leaving all his future work to the Foundation.

Things careened downhill for Bauer from there.  With no real role to play at the Foundation, he had little to say about what would become of those of his paintings already in the Foundation’s possession; in reaction, he stopped painting, thereby depriving the Foundation of any more of his works.  His relationship will Hilla deteriorated and virtually ended when he sued her for libeling his new wife, Louise (who had previously been his maid) in 1944.  When Guggenheim died in 1949, the Foundation’s trustees abandoned his vision of a Non-Objective art collection, relegating all of Bauer’s paintings to storage, and dismissed Hilla as curator.  Bauer died of lung cancer in 1953, without ever painting again.

Ms Gunderson’s play, which originally premiered at the San Francisco Playhouse, takes off from these facts, imagining what might have occurred had Bauer, Hilla and Louise re-united.  Would the Bauers have forgiven Hilla for having defamed Louise?  Would the spark between Bauer and Hilla have been rekindled?  Would Louise and Hilla have convinced Bauer to pick up his brushes again?  It’s all speculation, of course, but none the less entertaining for that.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Boys and Girls at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Sean Doyle, Maeve O'Mahoney, Claire O'Reilly, and Ronan Carey in BOYS AND GIRLS at 59E59 Theaters.  Photo by Carol Rosegg..
Boys and Girls, written and directed by Dylan Coburn Gray, was a hit at the Dublin Fringe where it won the Fishamble New Writing Award before transferring to the Project Arts Centre in Dublin.  It is now receiving its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of Origin’s First Irish, the world’s only all Irish theatre festival.

The play, emerging from the Irish spoken word scene, features Ronan Cary, Sean Doyle, Claire O’Reilly, and Maeve O’Mahony as four young, single individuals hitting the Dublin bars and hoping to get lucky.  The playwright has a wonderful ear for language, including its rhymes and rhythms, and a talent for playwriting in a form almost the equivalent of free verse.  The four characters’ intercut monologues, all addressing one or another aspect of their sexual desires and performances, are individually clever, sharp, literate, and articulate - and range from impersonally analytic to sexually exhilarating, from potty-mouthed to emotionally incisive, from banally mundane to rollickingly funny.  And yet, when all is said and done, although the play is well-written and all four actors are quite competent in their respective roles, the entire production comes across as being something less than the sum of its parts, with the intercutting of the actors’ passages serving to fragment, rather than integrate, the play as a whole.

In its promotional material, the play’s producers urge would be theatre-goers not to bring their kids to this one and they’re quite right: the play is well-written, humorous and entertaining, but it is also dirty to a fault, and most inappropriate for children.  A good example of this would be Maeve O’Mahony’s riff on what to call the vagina (her own personal “vagina monologue,” as it were) which was, to my mind, one of the play’s funniest, albeit dirtiest, passages. 

So given that this is not one for the kids, what about you adults out there: ought you make an effort to see it?  Well, that’s really up to you.  If you can appreciate unabashedly low-class and grossly ribald humor, then you might very well find it worth your while.  But if gutter language and rampant sexuality is not your cup of tea, then this is one you might do best to avoid.