One essential requirement for a play that concerns itself with the essence of beauty is a pretty production — and this director Mark Wing-Davey and his inspired design staff deliver in breathtaking style. Though virtually bare, the stage of the Newman becomes an abstract mosaic of pattern and color that shifts from scene to scene through the artful use of flying panels, floating paintings, sliding shoji screens and eerie light projections. These visual delights also service provocative aesthetic questions that Naomi Iizuka raises about the reality — and validity — of beauty itself.
When Darius Wheeler, a smug collector of Asian fine art and antiquities, meets Setsuko Hearn, an exquisite young woman who happens to be an art scholar in the same field, he naturally tries to collect her, too. But Setsuko has many facets to her elusive personality; indeed, in the play’s dazzling opening image, she emerges layer by layer, like a sleek black butterfly, from the intricate folds of a gorgeous ceremonial court costume.
Instead of swooning over Darius’ priceless art collection (acquired through God knows what unethical or violent means) and leaping between the silk sheets of his bed, she engages him in compelling debate about the nature of art.
In Stephen Lang’s what-me-sensitive? performance, Darius’ position is clear: “Beautiful means beautiful,” and if he can make a buck on it, so much the better. Setsuko’s yearning for emotional truth in beauty is all the more poignant because Liana Pai endows her with the reserved grace and neurotic edge of an intelligent woman who mistrusts her own passions. To her, there are no more honest or moving works of art than the “pillow books,” or secret diaries, in which women of the Heian era revealed “their innermost feelings of restlessness, uncertainty, desire, doubt.”
In one way or another, the play’s other characters take up the aesthetic argument. To Darius’ young assistant, whose romantic soul is both stroked and satirized in Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s offbeat performance, purity is all. To his anarchist friend, a mixed-media artist played with her dukes up by Elaine Tse, a work of beauty exists to be tampered with. To the elderly art scholar whom Richard Clarke invests with a fatal sense of loss and resignation, true beauty is that which is always beyond his reach. And in the view of a treacherous journalist whose arch villainy is embraced with gusto by Rebecca Wisocky, if a beautiful object ain’t “real,” you can stuff it.
All these theories about truth and beauty are put to the test when Darius acquires an 11th century pillow book that has the entire art world agog. When someone has the wits to realize the thing is bogus, all discussion turns on itself and becomes a debate on the validity of “impure” beauty. As the artist Hokusai famously illustrated with his 36 views of Mount Fuji, even something as tangible as a mountain is open to many interpretations. So, who is to say that a “fake” can’t be true — to itself, if nothing else. By the same token, should we renounce our love for a person who proves to be other than what we thought him or her to be?
In no way do these thematic dilemmas play out as dry academic discourse, thanks to the play’s richly imagistic language — an interplay of the formal speech of antiquity and the brittle chat of the postmodern art set –as well as the vitality of the dynamic production design. And if the links between human characters prove less durable (and less dramatically compelling) than their bondage to art and history, well, that too is part of the playwright’s thesis. And a pretty one it is, too.