by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Evan Yionoulis
Starring Ron Rifkin
Huntington Theatre Company
264 Huntington Ave. Boston / (617) 266-0800

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Putting the antics of fine-art commerce onstage approaches parody. Indeed, Donnelly's "Painted Alice" done earlier this season by the Industrial Theatre is typical, and basically entertaining. Jon Robin Baitz's "Ten Unknowns" being revived at the B.U.Theatre, after a proposal to bring last spring's Lincoln Center premiere to Broadway fell through, is not. The script is an overblown one-act, "Amphibian", written in 1995 but set three years earlier, which might have grown up to be an HBO movie given the right cast. Taken out of the drawer, the concept became instead a vehicle for Donald Sutherland, who lost interest after its initial run. He was wise. The play hasn't outgrown the shorthand characterizations typical of a one-act, uses up its premise for a first act curtain, and gets melodramatic at its bathetic climax.

The New York production was invigorated by Dan Sullivan's meticulous direction. Here Evan Yionoulis, on leave from being head of graduate acting at Yale, pays the same considerable attention, but has only veteran Baitz hand, Ron Rifkin to elevate the script. His presence, which was central to "The Substance of Fire", a Holocaust survivor drama, is effective but doesn't loom over the piece. Sutherland's physical stature gave the latter some help there, but as Malcolm Raphaelson, renegade figurist, Rifkin is a bit too much a little guy from New York City. One can imagine him painting with Rivera at Rockefeller Center, but not in Mexico. Still, his charm makes the evening tolerable, reminding the audience that this actor can be more that the mild-mannered villain in the complex world of "Alias", TV's revival of the "Perils of Pauline." His performance leaves the rest of the cast behind.

As Trevor Fabricant, T.Scott Cunningham has the unenviable task of playing an unpleasant gay South African art dealer with more than the usual sleazy business practices. Baitz again settles a few scores with his boyhood home, and probably a few agents he has known, but the audience deserves a stronger foil if the drama is to get beyond catty remarks. Jonathan M. Woodward, as Judd Sturgess, spoiled rich kid artist and junkie, sometime boyfriend of Trevor, sent down to get Raphaelson painting again, plays all these moments, but somehow quite never comes up with a character. The script gives him lots of attitude, but very little development. If the playwright was serious about examining the master/apprentice relationship, much more could have been written between the two. Their final redemptive act would have seemed possible, if not probable. Finally, Kathryn Hahn, seen this season and probably not next on T.V.s "Crossing Jordan", returns to the Huntington, in a role she seems fairly clueless about, emulating Julia Bryant, the biologist left over from "Amphibian" who she plays. The part, written to somehow be the moral witness of the piece, has more to it than nervous gestures, as Julianna Margulies displayed in NYC.

The set by Yale-trained Adam Stockhausen, which apparently emulates and exceeds the clutter and detail of the New York version, looms pinkly over the meager action, and from the amount of spatter on the walls, many feet off the floor, Raphaelson must have experimented with action painting at some time. The actual paintings used in the show, executed from Stockhausen's specifications by Ru June Wang are the best things in the decor. This show would have benefited from a "less is more" approach, though the tropical downpour outside the immense unglazed windows was impressive. The Huntington has always had a way with water. The vapid music by the author's brother Rick Baitz would have been more appropriate under credits. Authentic Mexican recordings might have provided atmosphere at least. Lighting and costumes were adequate, but needed to be more than that.

Baitz' last outing for this company was "The Fair Country", his second South African play. This followed his reduction of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" originally done in Hollywood and taken to New York by Kate Burton. He has of course become a fixture in Williamstown, Artistic Director Nicholas Martin's other stomping ground. The Huntington has just announced that they're giving him the premiere commission from their new Calderwood New American Plays Fund. No title has been announced. Will it be more of the same? How much more Ibsen has he ingested? What else has he in his desk drawer? Can it top the musical version of Paddy Chayevsky's "Marty" scheduled for next season?

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