The Old Masters

by Loren Noveck · June 14, 2015

old masters

Adelind Horan, Rory Kulz | Hunter Canning

W.H. Auden wrote a poem called Musee de Beaux Arts, which was immediately brought to mind by the title of Sam Marks’s new play, The Old Masters; its most famous stanza is: 

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; 

Auden then goes on to talk about Breughel’s painting of the fall of Icarus--which happens far in the background, almost unseen, while the painting’s foreground is an ordinary scene of people going about their lives. In Marks’s play, that foreground/background question becomes mostly an interior one--the suffering that goes on simultaneously with the same person’s “walking dully along” in what appears an ordinary, fulfilling life. And the course of the play is about giving voice to that angst. 

Here, you can also add the irony that a main part of the reason Ben, the central character, is suffering is because of the good his own actions have done for other people, notably Lara, the girlfriend of his now-missing childhood friend, Henry. But the problem is that Ben comes off as a selfish and self-absorbed person, whose suffering is more about jealousy than actual pain. He makes one decision that has massive repercussions, and then he goes into a downward spiral--and comes out at the other end of it with two plans to utterly change his life, in ways that would carry more weight if we’d really had a strong sense of who he was before. It’s not just that life goes on alongside the one who’s suffering; Ben seems determined to utterly overlook the lives alongside his in an attempt to end his suffering. 

Ben and Henry were childhood friends, both aspiring artists who’ve taken different paths. Henry lived the marginal life of the bad-boy artist who never quite grows up: tending bar, working manual labor, drinking too much, dating a bartender who’s a bit younger, scaring his grandmother and his girlfriend and never making any attempts to do much with his work. Ben went the scholarly, “adult” route: college, grad school, marriage to an ambitious architect, early promise with a gallery show--but now his gallerist won’t return his phone calls, he’s almost stopped painting, and he’s teaching art instead of making it. He can’t even bear to hang up the poster from his one and only show. Ben and his pregnant wife, Olive, have just bought a house in a not-quite-yet-up-and-coming urban neighborhood, a house they’re trying to fix up and get ready for the baby. But just when Ben’s life is on the brink of becoming something he never imagined--day job, homeowner, two cars, fatherhood--Henry disappears, leaving behind five boxes of paintings, one of which contains a slip of paper with Ben’s address. 

Several months later, Henry’s girlfriend, Lara, not sure what else to do, brings Ben the paintings--and Ben takes them to his old gallery. Is he doing it for personal gain, for the memory of friendship, to use his friend to prove his cynical point that “painting is dead,” or, more likely a little bit of all of the above? What he’s not expecting is for Henry to become an instant art-world star--or, with his continued absence, for Lara to become an art-world star: jetting off to Zurich, appearing in magazines, getting a coveted spot in the Whitney Biennial. Meanwhile, while his friend’s girlfriend reaps the rewards of everything Ben’s ever wanted, Ben grows increasingly disillusioned with the domestic life he thought he’d made his peace with. He becomes re-absorbed in his art--to the exclusion of just about everything else in his life. 

Yes, Ben feels trapped, feels like a failure, feels like the life he’s worked so hard to achieve is about to pass him by. But he’s also fixated on the idea that an interesting personal “narrative” is required to make a successful artist, a narrative he, with his wife and soon-to-be-child and two cars, is lacking--which makes his actual artistic ambitions and passions feel hollow and stuffed with pretense rather than talent. Part of this is acting choices--Rory Kulz gives Ben a smirky, shifty quality that makes him seem untrustworthy, and unresponsive to the needs of his wife, from the outset, rather than an ordinary guy pushed beyond his limits. Part of it is that Olive, despite being depicted as a successful architect who’s designed their own home, is in the language of the play mostly just a vortex of domestic neediness: always thinking about food, or paint, or potential health issues in their baby. And Lara becomes mostly a substitute for Henry and a foil for Ben; Adelind Horan is intensely watchable and conveys Lara’s restlessness and her simultaneous embrace and fear of what’s happening to her--but there’s still not a lot of substance to the character, other than her feelings for Henry and her new role as his stand-in. 

Too, director Brandon Stock seems to be trying a little too literally to convey the restlessness of the characters. They’re always fidgeting, pacing from side to side of the living/room kitchen depicted on the set, unpacking boxes, moving things around. 

The underlying emotional state that fuels these characters is a familiar one to us all--the sense of lost opportunities, of a life that’s passing us by, the unavoidable tendency to look at the roads not taken. But this exploration of them feels too mired in one person’s interior journey through that realization.






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