Paul Swan, an oddball of bygone Manhattan, is the protagonist of Claire Kiechel’s new play, Paul Swan Is Dead and Gone. The playwright is Swan’s great-grandniece, though too young to have known him. She has assembled an ambitious theater piece, more fantasia than drama, that depicts his story of self-invention.
Born in 1883, Swan was a Nebraska farm boy who early fled his parents and their fundamentalist Christianity. After briefly studying art in Chicago, he roamed through Europe and the United States promoting a gospel of beauty for beauty’s sake. Swan found some success, though less fame than he desired, as a portraitist whose paintings, most now lost, flattered their subjects.
The young Swan had an impressive physique and the chiseled, Anglo-Saxon face of the Arrow Collar Man (a chic look in the early 20th century). Lillian Russell called him “the most beautiful man in the world.” Shortly before World War I, Swan restyled himself as a professional dancer. Wearing skimpy tunics (and sometimes no clothes at all), he performed his own pseudo-Hellenic choreography. Journalists who took note treated him as a highbrow curiosity, usually mentioning the epithet Russell had given him.
As Swan’s looks waned, impresarios lost interest in his dance routines. Swan responded by opening his New York City abodes—first, his Carnegie Hall studio, then a shabbier place on Eighth Avenue—for salons and “pantomimic dance recitals.” Amid Persian carpets, Parisian posters, and statuary, he danced for those who paid admission.
The Civilians, one of Off-Off-Broadway’s most adventurous companies, is presenting this world premiere, which addresses a multiplicity of melancholy themes, including self-delusion and the inevitability of change. Directed by Steve Cosson, the production takes place on the parlor floor of a 19th-century townhouse in Chelsea. The conceit is that the audience is attending one of the aged dancer’s salons. Scenic designer Andromache Chalfont, aided by Lucrecia Briceno’s lighting and Emily Raw’s props, has tarted up the down-at-heels venue—former home of actors Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, now an arts center called Torn Page—with period colors and arty items, some more trash than treasure, like those Swan collected in his global peregrinations.
Kiechel’s meandering script includes monologues and dramatic vignettes that incorporate fragments of Swan’s writing, music, dance, and stylized movement (choreography is by Dan Safer; original music, by Avi A. Amon and Robert M. Johanson, with sound design by Amon). In the course of 80 minutes, four good actors portray a variety of figures who wander in and out of the action: Swan’s accompanists, Bellamy and Bollany (possibly lovers of the bisexual Swan, and both played by Johanson); and backup dancers, who transform into Swan’s daughters, Flora (Helen Cespedes) and Paula (Alexis Scott). Also briefly present are novelist James Purdy (Scott), who modeled the protagonist of I Am Elijah Thrush on Swan, and Susan Sontag (Cespedes), whose 1963 essay “Notes on Camp” analyzes that sensibility, which Andy Warhol also explored in Paul Swan and Camp, two 1965 films that feature Swan, still dancing in his 80s.
The play’s central figure, embodied by Tony Torn, is a late arrival. He is fleshy and unkempt, apprehensive and petulant. Most of all, he’s sad and needy and crippled with stage fright. When he finally summons the fortitude to perform, it becomes clear that this isn’t merely a routine evening of a peculiar man’s art. This salon is occurring in February 1972, and the audience is in the presence of the dying Swan. Even at death’s door, he’s pathetically insecure about his lifelong project of self-invention.
Clad in Swan’s trademark tunic and bedecked with unsightly costume jewelry, Torn performs with convincing earnestness and a fragility that’s heartrending. He captures the mixture of ambition and grandiosity needed to keep the old man pursuing his aesthetic ideal long beyond any hope of achieving it. Torn’s lack of personal vanity is striking; and his willingness, in creating the character, to expose what time has done to his own physique is courageous. Torn’s intelligent interpretation of a foolish figure is hilarious at many points, difficult to watch at others.
“When you look at me, do you still see a poor boy from Nebraska?” Swan asks Bollany, who’s poised to guide him to the afterlife. This is an artist whose ambition is never satisfied. “May I prove myself to you one more time?” No matter how painful to view, it’s impossible to look away from the accelerating emotion of Torn’s intriguing performance and the fragments of the past dancing in the mind’s eye of the old artist.
The Civilians’ presentation of Paul Swan Is Dead and Gone runs through May 19 at Torn Page (435 West 22nd St, between 9th and 10th). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; matinees are at 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For information and tickets, call (212) 352-3101 or visit thecivilians.org.