The project of Connecticut-based Bated Breath Theatre Company is to devise theatrical productions in partnership with museums. For its Off-Broadway debut, the troupe has collaborated with the New Britain Museum of American Art to create Beneath the Gavel, which offers a mêlée of perspectives on the visual art world: the fast-paced realm of auctions, the struggle of young artists to make a living, and the larger picture of art history and its various historical movements. While each one of these approaches to the art world would makes for an interesting and meaty show, Beneath the Gavel tries to treat them all, and suffers because of it.
Beneath the Gavel's humor lies in lampooning the pretensions and eccentricities of the art world. Actress Debra Walsh is a natural comedienne in her bit roles, shining at first when she satirizes an art dealer peddling a “sculpture” made of literal human excrement, and again when she struts on stage in an exaggerated cameo of Andy Warhol.
Unfortunately, many other moments of humor in Beneath the Gavel rely on gimmicks, such as Damien Hirst’s offhand use of Donald Trump’s nauseating catchphrase “Huuuge.” This fleeting gag does not make sense within the world of the play and seems only to exist for a cheap laugh. There are other similar examples—such as the ensemble’s “oinking” at the mention of artist Francis Bacon—fall short of camp and read as slightly pandering.
Beneath the Gavel’s other flaw is that it tries to do too much. Within the span of one evening, the show attempts to shed light on the hidden world of art auctions, while also telling the romantic historical tale of art patron Haddie Weisenberg (Walsh) and her sponsored artist, Daniel Zeigler (Corey Finzel). Finzel and Walsh are endearing in their interactions, but their storyline as Weisenberg and Ziegler simply does not have the stage time it needs to blossom fully.
Interspersed within this storyline are three live “auctions,” in which the company members break the fourth wall to allow audience members using fake money to bid on Zeigler’s paintings. One of these auctions is led by actress Missy Burmeister, who seems to be half in the character of auctioneer Tracey Allister. Burmeister's lecture-demonstration is the most successful aspect of these interactive auctions because of the interesting facts she presents about the art of auctioneering. For some reason, though, the audience is instructed to wear silly plastic sunglasses (distributed at the beginning of the show) during these segments.
As if the auctions, the love story, and the exploration of New York’s billion-dollar art scene were not enough for a two-hour show, Beneath the Gavel also tries to narrate the history of contemporary art from Kandinsky to Rauschenberg through dance. Unfortunately, this is where the show struggles under its own ambition, and its various moving parts suffer from underdevelopment. For example, the intermittent dance sequences feel just slightly out of place, as does the ongoing slew of visual projections (of images such as splattering paint or shadow puppetry of a man pushing a hot-dog cart). These elements feel like random afterthoughts or compulsions towards intermediality, rather than integral parts of the show.
Beneath the Gavel’s saving grace is that it does offer documentary-like moments of exposing the fast-paced world of the billion-dollar art industry. If that is something that truly interests you, give this show a try.
Beneath the Gavel runs through April 9 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and 3:15 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 members). To purchase them, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.