‘The Old Masters’
Through Jan. 26
Washington Stage Guild
Undercroft Theatre, 900 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
$40-$50 (half price student discount)
Simon Gray’s thoroughly enjoyable drama “The Old Masters” is indeed about important art. It’s also about the art of the deal. But mostly it’s about the interdependent professional relationship (and sometimes friendship) between famed art historian Bernard Berenson and the equally famous art dealer Joseph Duveen.
Washington Stage Guild’s take on Gray’s 2004 work currently playing at the intimate Undercroft Theatre features a very capable cast in a production straightforwardly staged by Laura Giannarelli.
Set in the storied Villa I Tatti, Berenson’s residence near Florence, the action unfolds over one long evening in 1937. The scene is tense. A Lithuanian-born American, Berenson (BB to his friends) and his terminally ill wife Mary aren’t happy. Money is tight and war is looming. She is preoccupied with the financial wellbeing of her adult children and grandchildren from a previous marriage in England, and he misses the fat checks he once collected for authenticating Renaissance paintings. Yet a veneer of domestic civility prevails, thanks mainly to Nicky, Berenson’s longtime factotum and mistress (and now Mary’s caregiver).
On the fated night, Duveen drops in uninvited. He and BB have been on the outs, but Duveen softens the estrangement by paying an old debt to his host and proposing a lucrative business partnership. But first (and here’s the rub), Duveen wants a favor. He asks that BB pipe down on the authentication of a painting that he is selling to patrician American industrialist Andrew Mellon. BB says it’s a Titian. The world credits Masaccio. A great showdown ensues.
“The Master Works” is the last published play by British playwright Gray who died at 71 in 2008. Though not acquainted with his protagonists in life, he knows them well. Gray brilliantly conveys his aging characters’ urgency in terms of time and concern with legacy — both monetary and reputation. While an interest in art and a little background on the characters might prove helpful to audiences, it’s not necessary. This well-made play stands on its own.
Duveen is played with bigger-than-life gusto by Conrad Feininger. He envelops the smaller, less demonstrative BB (David Bryan Jackson) with roaring compliments and great hugs, bending his frenemy to his will with a tidal wave of bonhomie. It’s a wonderful performance.
And Jackson (wearing a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard) gives a nuanced portrayal. His BB is a fastidious sensualist who falls into raptures when he sees “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (the painting in question). He’s a self-centered man who expects a lot of from his women (including his Swedish masseuse who visits daily) yet he cares for them deeply in his own way.
Jewel Robinson is compelling as Mary, BB’s wife who tolerates her husband’s weaknesses. Rounding out a very strong cast are Thomasin Savaiano as charming and efficient Nicky, and Steven Carpenter as Fowles, Duveen’s assistant derisively referred to as the “lift boy” by BB. (Fowles was once in fact the elevator operator in Duveen’s apartment building.)
Marianne Meadows gently lights set designer Carl F. Gudenius’ pretty Italian garden and later a well-appointed library. Sigrid Jóhannesdóttir’s costumes exude quality and taste except for those worn by Nicky, who’s a tad flashier than the others.
“The Old Masters” has great local resonance. “The Adoration of the Shepherds” hangs in Washington’s National Gallery, one of many Renaissance paintings collected Mellon, Samuel Kress (the five and dime millionaire), and others to be found in the building’s West Wing. While brush stroke technique and revered names like Titian are tossed about throughout much of the play, the audience sees only the backs of canvases. A visit to the Gallery might make a nice follow up.