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Picasso’s Closet

At Theater J to July 23

U.S.A.

By John Dos Passos

At American Century Theater to July 15

You’d expect complexity in a play about Picasso, expect a little intensity in a drama set in the Paris of the Occupation—but surely no one would expect that a show setting out to imagine a history for such an intriguing man in such an impossible place would end up seeming at once overcomplicated and underwhelming. Picasso’s Closet accomplishes that feat, and more: Ariel Dorfman’s latest play, an ambitious experiment in a handsome but awkward production at Theater J, somehow comes off as both overcooked and half-baked.

Maybe expectations are high, with Theater J touting a world premiere from the author of the despairingly humane truth-and-reconciliation parable Death and the Maiden, or maybe director and cast haven’t had time to make sense of changes that apparently continued right up to opening week. But while a handful of moments hint at the smart, shivery metaphysics the author must’ve had in mind, they can’t redeem the unsatisfying sprawl of what director John Dillon has put onstage.

Actually, what’s onstage, at least what’s static onstage, looks fabulous: Lewis Folden’s set is pretty much the triumph you’d imagine the play could be, a gloriously messy warren of an artist’s studio crowded with canvases leaning in corners, angled shelves spilling over with implements and artifacts, and that gorgeous, famous monstrosity of a stove dominating the room like a stack of huge iron bobbins. Tesserae cluster in honeycombs on a floor that bisects itself into swathes of turquoise and aubergine (the colors, a click through Folden’s Web site reveals, are inspired by 1939’s Night Fishing at Antibes); an upstage window opens onto a painted Paris, rooftops and chimney pots receding rank on rank.

It’s the page that’s the problem: In Picasso’s Closet, Dorfman offers up a kind of fantasia on moral obligation, a fractured, faceted look through the prism of Picasso’s own cubism at the question of what the world’s most celebrated artist might have done, what he ought to have done, in those largely undocumented years he spent immured in a city controlled by a regime that denounced his work as degenerate. Did he resist? Openly? Quietly? Or did he merely keep his head down, working while friends like the poet Max Jacob felt the noose draw tighter? And whatever the answer, what might it have cost him? Time and space fold together, then unfold again, as Dorfman attacks the question from within Picasso’s circle, into which an urbane, obsessive Nazi officer keeps insinuating himself, and from the vantage of history, where an ambitious biographer listens, intrigued, as that Nazi steps in and out of the action to look back on it, explaining how he choreographed the story’s acceleration toward an end that would cost the painter his life—and possibly his soul.

Of course the real Picasso survived the war, dying in 1973 at 91, which is the case his muse and lover Dora Maar makes, or seems to make, or feebly attempts to make, at least at the outset—but then there’s no “real” in the universe of Dorfman’s play, only the competing claims of a man dead-set on consuming an artist and of the women who write the artist’s official obituary. They collaborate, Dora and the historian, to rewrite the story we initially see play out when that puppet-master Nazi finally dances Picasso into the jaws of his trap, deciding between themselves to give the painter a moment of heroism and another decade or two of life—and if you find yourself pausing, now, struggling to get your head around that claim, welcome to the club: “Everything is possible and likely,” says a snippet of Strindberg that Dorfman uses as an epigraph on the title page of the playscript, and while I’d hesitate to contradict two such heavy hitters, I’m comfortable saying that everything may be possible, but everything isn’t necessarily digestible.

Certainly the play’s language isn’t. Its flashes of genuine poetry—and there are some, not least in an incantatory opening sequence that sees Guernica assemble itself while Picasso stabs violently at a stagewide canvas and Dora snaps away with her Rolleiflex, rapt and raging at the beauty and the terror of it—can’t compensate for great stretches of dialogue so forced, so clumsily expositional it borders on the gauche. “Charlene, Charlene, of all the people on this planet, surely you’re the one who doesn’t need an explanation,” says the oily Nazi to the chilly biographer—and then he goes and explains anyway, dwelling for a good dozen lines on how, to advance his wicked plot, he played on Picasso’s fear of being judged a coward by her and her ink-stained, history-drafting ilk. And though that’s probably the worst of the script’s flatfooted moments, it’s hardly the only one: Names and places and events get shoehorned in regularly, comfy little crib notes for theatergoers who presumably didn’t pay attention in Western Civ—and didn’t bother studying cultchah at all. (“Max Jacob, the great French poet?” someone asks. Why, yes.)

Worse, somehow, is that with Picasso’s soul in the balance, his tormented lover and the crypto-homo Nazi who stalks them come off as far more compelling—no surprise, perhaps, once you discover that Katherine Clarvoe and Saxon Palmer have been with the script through years of workshops. (Mitchell Hébert, the Picasso at the production’s ostensible center, was cast locally, along with the bulk of the Theater J ensemble, and like too much of that ensemble he seems not quite at home in the play.) Palmer makes a disturbing almost-sense of a character who feels literally raped by the force and the frankness of Picasso’s work, who’s been seen and who recoils, vulnerable, from the seer, and who responds to the appalling knowledge of his nakedness and his vulnerability with a hatred that’s both predatory and intimate in its single-mindedness; Clarvoe finds genuine, wrenching pathos in the loss of a woman who, having suffered for years as muse and even as co-creator, finds herself shunted aside, unable to connect with a man with whom she once seemed all but telepathically linked. They’re both fascinating to watch.

Picasso’s Closet, on the other hand…well, for a play that wants to be a thriller and a love story, an intellectual’s game and a philosopher’s conundrum and a raconteur’s tale of sexually charged obsession all at once, it turns out to be oddly uninvolving once you figure out where it’s going—which, alas, happens somewhere midway between the two intermissions. Dillon, who makes clean work of the play’s temporal and spatial leaps (Martha Mountain’s precise and communicative lighting plot is a huge help), can’t impose a like tidiness on the story’s cul-de-sacs (Who is that blind man who claims to be Balzac, anyway?) or find resonance in its too-tidy symmetries. (Dora, threatening to leave Picasso, echoes the Nazi’s tirade about feeling penetrated by the painter’s eye.)

At one of the script’s particularly fevered peaks, Dillon is reduced to sending characters scurrying to and fro across the stage; he chooses that instant to introduce an extra body, a performer no one’s seen before and whose name doesn’t appear in the program. It would be bad form, I suppose, for a director to actually stand up on opening night and fling his hands exasperatedly in the air, but that sequence is surely the next best thing.

There’s an unmistakable whiff of Ragtime in the opening sequence of U.S.A., with those parading swells and those vintage projections, and there’s a John Jakes–y flavor to the whole affair—but then North & South and that sprawling Kent Family foolishness came later, didn’t they, so they can’t help but seem like bourgie-escapist rip-offs of John Dos Passos, whose eponymous three-volume American saga provides the source material for the latest from the American Century Theater.

This streamlined take on Dos Passos’ jazzy, impressionistic epic tracks the rise of a canny public-relations titan (charismatic newcomer Evan Hoffman) from the dawn of the last century through the beginning of the Great Depression, glancing along the way at the events and influences that shape him and his era. A linked plot follows the story of a Georgetown girl (Monalisa Arias) and her impetuous brother (Bruce Alan Rauscher, tackling several parts with an agreeable freshness and humor); the Titanic’s sinking, the advent of the assembly line and of organized labor, the war that didn’t end all wars, and the corporate cynicism that bred and fed and lurked behind and under the lot of it—all that and rather more gets Dos Passos’ dispirited attention here, and Jacqueline Manger’s light-footed staging somehow makes disillusionment almost seem to dance.

In fact it does dance: Dos Passos and collaborator Paul Shyre (best known for writing James Whitmore’s long-running one-man Will Rogers’ U.S.A.) specify many a musical interlude, and Manger sets her cast to moving as often as she can. The Charleston, of course, rears its silly head, but the script also offers Patricia Hurley a chance to swan about grandly (her Isadora Duncan dies rather prettily in this version); other notables who turn up, in between visits with the increasingly empty-eyed PR maven, include the Wright brothers and labor organizer Eugene V. Debs.

The most indelible diversion (if you can call it that) is a chilling sequence built around the creation of a tomb for America’s unknown soldiers: The writing represents Dos Passos at his most brutally kaleidoscopic—beautiful images and blunt horrors crowding in on one another, and the able American Century cast whirls through it with a kind of fierce reverence. As an older, supposedly wiser America confronts another war, another administration bent on repurposing language to sell its policies, U.S.A. is a bracing reminder of what the cost of violence has always been.CP