Francis Newton Souza was an Indian-born visual artist who skyrocketed to the top of the London art scene in the late 1950s. His work at the time was heralded as “uncovering the underbelly of existence,” and the artist himself had “upturned everything.” Soon his fame dwindled, and he struggled to sell even his inoffensive landscapes (over his more emotive, sexually charged nudes). When Souza died a depressed, bankrupt pauper in 2002, his art began to sell at auction houses and museums like ice cream on a hot day. Sam Marks, writer of The Old Masters currently running at The Flea Theater, is particularly fascinated with this phenomenon: that of the "lost artist," the rebel in absentia. As his main character morosely points out, "There have been a few artists… who turned their back on the art world, in one way or another, and then became hot."
The play deals with failed artist and expectant father Ben Schmitt (Rory Kulz) as he fights against what he thinks is a slow descent into suburbia and ordinariness. His beautiful, sharp-tongued, architect of a wife Olive (Alesandra Nahodil) is pregnant, but her desire for a nuclear family is a menacing specter to Ben. His old art school friend Henry Olson has disappeared, but the latter’s paintings arrive at Ben’s door one morning, brought along by Henry’s girlfriend, the prettily mysterious Lara (Adelind Horan). As he shows them to galleries and his friend’s works cast a spell over the art world, Ben seeks to find his own calling, even at the cost of a lost artist’s success.
The main stage at The Flea Theater is decidedly small (it seats 74 at maximum capacity), yet an even smaller space (seating 40) exists below it. The “joyful hell in a small space” that the Flea seeks to instill through performance is perhaps taken a tad too seriously; walking into this basement-like set is the first jolt of unnerving intimacy we get as the production runs its hour-and-a-half long course. The space itself is a long rectangle, perfect for set designer Andrew Diaz’s vision of an unfinished apartment, complete with piles of sheet rock, scaffolding, and dozens of half-opened cardboard boxes. The program includes a description of a featured artist’s works that hang on the incomplete walls of the set, in a rather ironic stab at publicity for contemporary visual art.
The production is rife with a high Chelsea dialect, unique to that district’s art scene both in attitude and vocabulary; for instance, here’s Ben talking to a gallerist about Henry’s work: “There are touches of the photorealism. But when comparing them to other neorealists it’s not steely, like Richter, and it’s not candy coated, like Elizabeth Peyton.” But to shield us from our intellectual insecurities, there is Lara, the laid-back, spontaneous manic pixie dreamboat, with her defensive indifference to Rauschenberg and Klee and Richter. The rapid-fire delivery of the lines, particularly between Kulz and Horan, is reminiscent of Hollywood oldies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, minus the screwball comedy, but double the erotic will-they-won’t-they. Director Brandon Stock’s “examination of marriage” might have benefited from fewer shouting matches and a greater focus on the couple’s dynamics itself; Horan’s Lara, rather than said dynamics, dominates the production. Yet there is a wry cynicism in Kulz’s performance that slowly progresses to despairing disillusionment, and his character is often brought down to earth by a staunchly realistic wife, played to sympathetic perfection by Nahodil.
We find it especially difficult to sympathize with the main character; indeed, Ben spends most of the play as the insensitive, pretentious, wannabe-Old-Master who seeks to dethrone his Souza-esque best friend from the “allure of the lost artist” that Henry possesses. But it is in Ben’s temperamental evolution where Marks’ charged, controlled script reaches its dramatic crescendo, in more ways than one. At the tail end of a destructive fight between Ben and Olive, the audience finally understands the extent of Ben’s ambition, and how that ambition isn’t so different from our own. Ben seeks to rise above his forced mantle of mediocrity, and he struggles under the lightness of its weight: “I have tried. For years I have tried to be the guy who teaches a little and works a little and goes out a little and had a little career and fucks a little and has a little family and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t fucking work.”
It is this passive struggle that seems to be the perennial cause of our own rare, active movements: quitting a dead-end job, abandoning a troubled marriage and ending a toxic friendship. Ben does all of these things, thinking it will give him a chance to soar above the rest of the muddled, mediocre heap of humanity and place him alongside the echelons of the Old Masters. But all he does is join our ranks. So if you don’t mind a few glancing blows to your comfortable existence, or a sudden urge to reshuffle your priorities, Marks’ new play is well worth a visit.
The Old Masters runs until June 28 at The Flea Theater (41 White Street between Church and Broadway). Performances are Monday-Saturday at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. (Note: there are no performances June 23-26.) Tickets are $15-$35 with lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.theflea.org.