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Is art debased when it encounters the masses? When it’s purchased by a collector with a dubious motive? If its creator is chasing fame rather than the muse? Can beauty be bought? Does it fade when it explains itself? Are you tired of Big Questions yet?
If so, you might want to think twice about Caridad Svich’s Magnificent Waste, which is in the business of just such grandly inquisitive gestures—and the business of boldly provocative statements. “Art has no origin,” a truculent artist tells an arrogant patron, who’s eyeing an installation she’s created using a beautiful young man adorned with glitter and Good & Plentys. And for a while the play’s premiere, an uneven multimedia exercise courtesy of the Factory 449 collective, seems like it might be the sort of tasty art-world satire a theatergoer could settle back and salivate over. (I’d toyed idly with reviewing it in tandem with the Signature Theatre revival of Art, a more comical, more commercial offering that likewise examines a testy friendship and the perils of close reading.)
Svich, though, turns out to be working in a more serious vein. Her story, which turns on that angry artist and her drink-swilling, pill-popping party-circuit buddies (an underemployed Hollywood starlet and a ratings-hungry talk-show host), plus the two strangers who are art and collector, turns out to be more tragedy than comedy—and more authorial commentary than tragedy. What looks at first like an absurdist setup is eventually revealed to be a situation, and a set of people, that Svich (or director John Moletress) wants us to actually care about: betrayals and breakdowns and bomb scares, oh my, all in a play that manages to seem both overstuffed and overlong at 90 minutes.
The Factory 449 ensemble still seems warily uncertain about how broadly to play its characters’ corruptions and how earnestly to deliver the playwright’s diagnoses, and it may well be there’s no tone that could bring the two successfully together. Certainly the modulation isn’t quite right here: You get the sense of talented performers working frustratedly through dramaturgical thickets where somebody once thought they saw a path.
Meanwhile, the limits of a multimedia design that at first seems stimulating become apparent as soon as the action shifts to the set of that egomaniac TV host’s daily chat show, which is supposedly a national broadcast but looks like it’s being generated from the Wayne’s World basement. And the play’s diction, which can be stilted even in the most intimate passages, tips over into the preposterous whenever the cameras are on. (Again, the satirical impulse must have been at work at some point, but there’s a substantial disconnect between the ridiculousness of the characters and how seriously their behavior and its consequences are presented for our consideration.)
Maybe it’s just the ratio of talk to observation in Magnificent Waste, but with 20 minutes or so to go, I found myself thinking wistfully of the taut simplicities of Fragments, an hour-long set of five Samuel Beckett shorts that played a handful of performances at the Kennedy Center last weekend, in a production co-directed by theatrical legend Peter Brook. It’s a brutally unfair comparison, I know. But in two-thirds of the time, with a fraction of the jaundice, and with what I’d hazard is a substantially smaller tally of words, the master miniaturist and the master minimalist had a lot more to say about the human condition—and about the art of making art.