by David Lally · September 13, 2014
Stacy Ross, Sherman Howard, and Susi Damilano | Carol Rosegg
If you do nothing else this Fall you must go see Bauer, a historically-accurate yet fictionally-told interpretation of famed modernist painter Rudolf Bauer’s confrontation between himself, his wife Louise, and Hilla von Rebay, Bauer's longtime lover. Delving into the now near-forgotten feud between Bauer, his benefactor Solomon Guggenheim, and Rebay, the woman who introduced them, Bauer throws the spotlight on an unresolved art controversy.
With his life's work procured by the Guggenheim Foundation, Bauer believed that the museum in New York was being built to house his creations. However, the Guggenheim opened without a single Bauer on display. What happened to his paintings? Was this the perceived betrayal that caused Bauer to set down his brushes and never paint again? The play, which premiered earlier this year in San Francisco, is the most refreshing, theatrically alive work I have seen this year.
I love plays that deal with history and especially plays that take history and create a moment that could have plausibly happened within the confines of the story. This is one such piece. Both operating under false assumptions about the other, Bauer and his former mistress, and now curator of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, give the play its drive. Having been promised by Mr. Guggenheim (who dubbed him the “greatest living painter”) that his work would live on in a temple to his art, Bauer signed his rights away. Due to the language barrier, Bauer wasn’t fully aware of what his contract stipulated: that not only did he sell all his current paintings over to Guggenheim, but any future work he might create was also immediately owned by the museum. Having been jailed by the Nazis in his own country for his “degenerate” art couldn’t stop him from trying to paint in prison. But what the Nazis couldn’t stop, commerce could. After the Guggenheim betrayal, Bauer never painted again. And that’s where we find these characters at the beginning of Lauren Gunderson’s tense, taut and riveting play.
The play itself is a marvel of sharp, smart writing with surprises and witty dialogue throughout. Even if you know what really happened, every revelation in the play comes as a genuine surprise as Gunderson has set up the pins beautifully so that the characters can knock them down one by one. There is not a moment of this play that isn’t completely fascinating and absorbing. The dialogue is as much a piece of art as any that emanated from Bauer’s brush.
Two of the actors from the San Francisco Playhouse production return for the New York engagement. Stacy Ross as Hilla von Rebay and Susi Damilano as Bauer’s wife, Louise, are a joy to watch. Their continued dance around each other, (the ex-mistress and the wife; the curator and the maid) first with sophistication, then with caustic cattiness, is completely charming and believable. They are joined by Sherman Howard as Bauer. Howard gives a solid, restrained and very grounded performance as we watch Bauer go from anxious to melancholic to angry at what he thinks is the betrayal of Hilla, and more importantly, the betrayal of his art. The characters start at barely civilized and quickly cross over to sparring, insulting, arguing and then back to sparring. It is like watching a great tennis match. Director Bill English certainly has brought the best out of these three actors.
The setting by English and the costumes by Abra Berman, are completely appropriate to time and place and never distract from the characters on stage. I must give a special mention to the lighting by Mary Louise Geiger, the sound design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker and the projection design by Micah J. Stieglitz. In so many plays the lighting and sound effects cry out to be noticed. Here the subtlety adds to the overall effect. We see many of Bauer’s paintings and drawings come to life at key moments of the play, either when characters look through old sketchbooks or portfolios, or when Bauer himself remembers some of his best work, all of which he will never see again.
Love, loss, art, betrayal, passion, conviction, commerce, capitalism, drama, intrigue: It’s all on display onstage at 59E59 Theaters, now through October 12th.