In “Picasso’s Closet,” playwright Ariel Dorfman reshapes history for an intellectual debate about art vs. life. The setting is occupied Paris, where Pablo Picasso is hounded and eventually killed by a Nazi soldier instead of living until 1973. The “what if?” scenario is an earnest exercise that revels in complexity but fails to overcome the “so what?” factor to become compelling theater.
Dorfman weaves an element of suspense throughout the play, currently in its world premiere at Theater J, but the ending is no surprise. The three acts are named “The Prey,” “The Hunt” and “The Kill,” respectively, and those titles distinctly describe the slides placed under Dorfman’s microscope.
At the play’s core is a real question about Picasso’s life during the war years, when the celebrated pacifist and creator of the antiwar piece “Guernica” lived in apparent peace and neutrality in Paris while artists around him were persecuted. Did Picasso ignore or participate in the resistance while continuing to paint under the disapproving eye of the Nazis?, the playwright wonders. And what should he have felt about it?
Dorfman suggests that Picasso mostly remained in his crowded studio (kudos to Lewis Folden’s busy set), cranking out artwork that he was forbidden to display while fending off a parade of uninvited guests, both real and imagined. They included his lover, artist Dora Maar (Katherine Clarvoe); poet Max Jacob (Bill Hamlin); and Blue period subject Jaime Sabartes (Lawrence Redmond).
The most troublesome of visitors to the studio is a fictitious German officer, played with in-your-face intensity by Saxon Palmer. He is the central villain who relentlessly stalks the “degenerate artist” and who ultimately pulls the trigger as his own perverted act of artistic expression. Or did he?
To examine this scenario from multiple perspectives, Dorfman has created an enterprising journalist (Kathleen Coons) who drops in to chronicle the artist’s life and the pressures he probably faced. As the action plays around her, she converses with Maar and the Nazi officer about their respective actions. While the device enables the author to explore the situation’s many ambiguities, it seldom connects on an emotional level. It also doesn’t help that Palmer overplays his role.
Director John Dillon keeps the action lively by giving free rein to the strong personalities populating this play. Central among them is Mitchell Hebert’s multifaceted Picasso, no shrinking violet as he emotionally dominates his lover, criticizes the events around him and falls into the soldier’s careful trap. But even Dillon can’t deliver the clarity needed to help illuminate Dorfman’s often convoluted script.