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Cautious diplomacy sometimes seems kindest when well-meaning people put together a show that audiences check out of midway through. So rather than ranting about the Signature Theatre’s noisy, unsubtle production of Ten Unknowns, in which even the gratuitous politico jokes met with anesthetized silence this past Sunday night, let’s see what cautiously diplomatic things we can find to say:

Jon Robin Baitz, a not-inconsequential playwright, has written a rather long and complicated play about the painful process of making art. No doubt it seems more layered and sophisticated on the page than on this particular stage.

Signature has hired several experienced actors, and they seem to have learned their lines. They speak them quite plainly—loudly, the uncharitable might say. One or two of them manage moments of actual emotional depth.

Jason H. Thompson lights the proceedings prettily, perhaps even eloquently, and Matt Nielson’s sound scoring may be the subtlest and most communicative thing happening.

There’s a set; it seems very taken with its own cleverness, and it doesn’t fall down. No, actually it does. But apparently that’s intentional.

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Now, then. The positives having been politely disposed of, what was Rick DesRochers thinking? Signature’s new associate artistic director has taken what seems like a pretty rich ensemble piece—Baitz’s story involves a has-been recluse of an artist, his ambitious young-Turk assistant, an earnest marine biologist who’s warily drawn to both of them, and the shifty South African art dealer who wants to stage-manage the old man’s comeback—and tilted it until only Timmy Ray James’ irascible, embittered painter seems to matter. Overheated performances and overdramatic direction accentuate the problem, with the result that Baitz’s episodic second act, in which the other characters get big, meaty speeches illuminating their various odd behaviors and unlikely emotional connections, seems less about dramatic complexity than about ill-focused dramaturgy.

And that’s a shame, because a better-balanced production could make something genuinely wrenching out of the crippling codependent relationship that’s evolved between James’ caustically cynical Malcolm “Rafe” Raphelson, a figurative painter long past his brief ’40s heyday, and Evan Casey’s broody, ironic Judd Sturgess, a Manhattan-steeped artist wannabe with what may be a too-sensitive soul hidden under that clichéd city-boy shell. It’s mid-recession 1992, and Judd’s been dispatched by his art-dealer ex-lover, Trevor (Nigel Reed), to the Mexican backwater where Rafe’s been hiding out for the last 20-odd years, ostensibly to work as the artist’s assistant but really to serve as both spur and spy, prodding the old man to finish the intriguing new set of paintings and reporting back on how things are progressing. (He’s got his own reasons for being there, too, being a would-be painter searching for an expressive voice of his own.)

At the top of Act 1, that selfsame self-serving canvas merchant has descended upon Rafe’s decrepit studio, rendered with a self-conscious sense of capital-M metaphor by Stephanie Nelson as a warehouse-sized space walled with stretched-canvas panels, their backs to the audience. (This is the house Rafe’s art built—get it?) Reed’s tightassed fop arrives ready to pack up paintings, painter, and brush-washing ex-boyfriend and put an end to “this absurd, dusty obscurity—this penance” long since served by an old commie of an artist who, it turns out, had the integrity to stick with his own muse while the prophets of abstract expressionism eclipsed anyone who didn’t drink their primary-colored Kool-Aid. By intermission, Baitz has baited Trevor with a look at several superb new paintings and baited us with the promise of the triumphant New York comeback that may be in store for Rafe now that the scales have come off a Koons-weary public’s eyes. But just before the curtain comes a curveball, a tequila- and jazz-fueled studio session that makes it clear Rafe has been using Judd to do more than just mix paints.

James and Casey do capture something of the intensity of that interdependency—which is good, because it becomes the subject of much of Act 2, and it would seem to be one of Baitz’s chief concerns. But the relationship remains one-sided: Casey has charisma but overplays the kid’s postmodern insouciance. (Oh, and what’s with that crisp Chelsea-boy haircut, when he’s supposedly been in Mexico for weeks, if not months?) Most critically, Casey and DesRochers never convince us that Judd’s the tragically gifted creature Baitz means him to be—so the audience’s emotional investment goes right to Rafe when we’re meant to mourn Judd’s painter’s block as well.

Certainly none of it goes to Reed, whose Trevor is a shrill, effete caricature and who seems to think it likely that a third-generation Capetonian might plausibly speak with a Noel Coward accent. There’s zero chemistry between him and Casey—which derails what might have been a sensitive subplot about Trevor and Judd’s own complicated past—and their tangled-up motives in the current business. And aside from a delicately handled speech delivered with commendable composure during a mostly nude posing session, Sarah Douglas’ bespectacled frog-chaser Julia barely registers as a presence—another pretty major problem in a play that uses her not just to disrupt the uneasy balance that’s evolved in Rafe’s studio, but also to help shed light on both the causes and the consequences of the paralysis both painters keep confronting.

Add to all that an underwhelming coup de théâtre to wrap the evening up—after a last-minute emotional gear-change so sudden they oughta be passing out neck braces in the lobby—and you’ve got a production whose impact depends entirely on the outsize lion-in-winter performance of James as an artist you want to admire but can’t, quite. You’ll feel the same way, I’m guessing, about Ten Unknowns.CP