“This is a glory in itself,” says art expert Bernard Berenson (Sam Waterston) as he gazes at a Renaissance painting, allowing himself a moment where he’s not consumed with the business of determining the authenticity of the work. The same can be said of the late Simon Gray’s elegant and entertaining penultimate play, “The Old Masters,” receiving a U.S. preem at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater. Brimming with wit, ideas and three masterful perfs by Waterston, Brian Murray and Shirley Knight, the production is a glory too, even with its imperfections, not the least of which is a deadly epilogue.
But oh, the theatrical pleasures in watching these seasoned actors in action under the meticulous and firmly rooted helming of another stage vet, Michael Rudman (whose association with Waterston goes back to their 1975 “Hamlet”).
This 2004 Gray play, which has commercial attachments and Rialto ambitions, centers on two real-life art lions in winter, once friends and business associates of “rancorous affection” and now estranged. Enter Joseph Duveen (Murray), who hopes to get historian Berenson to bless “The Adoration of the Shepherds” as a more valuable rare Giorgione than a work done by his prolific pupil Titian.
Cash-strapped and with increasing pressure from his ailing wife, Mary (Knight), to find funds, Berenson grapples with issues of integrity, reputation and values as Duveen hustles amid an increasingly soulless art market.
The play, which had a run in the West End, is set in Berenson’s villa outside Florence in 1937 where he lives with his 74-year-old wife and his younger secretary-mistress, Nicky (Heidi Schreck) — it’s a civilized accommodation for all.
A Lithuanian-born Jew, Berenson senses the incoming tide of Mussolini’s Italy that will wipe the canvas of humanity and culture clean, “so what does it matter, a few lies or a few truths in the attribution of a Giorgione or a Titian, one’s as good as the other when there’s nobody left to look at them.”
What does matter in the end is the value of life and how one lives it, as seen by a writer in the last years of his own. Even when the combination of biography, art and history doesn’t always fit comfortably within a stage frame, Gray’s intelligence, humor and compassion is what remain in the mind’s eye.
What also matters in this production is the value of the marvelous perfs. Waterston is stunning and ever-surprising moment to moment as the brilliant, petulant and passionate art lover. But even simply gazing into a painting, Waterston evokes a multitude of thoughts and emotions.
Murray delightfully fulfills the character’s “power to charm,” while finding the layers of desperation, sadness and cunning as well. Whether he is sipping a forbidden drink, sniffing a cigar or delighting in a sleight of hand, Murray is a joy to watch.
Knight, too, touches all the complex and contradictory feelings of her troubled character, and in the end, in a haunting late night haze of drink and memory, gives insight to both men on what is truly priceless.
Also solid in supporting roles of two people delicately negotiating a volatile landscape are Schreck as Berenson’s secretary-mistress and Rufus Collins as Edward Fowles, Duveen’s proper business associate.
Production values are a work of art as well with Alexander Dodge creating Villa I Tatti’s courtyard, complimented by Peter Kaczorowski’s Tuscan lighting, later turning chiaroscuro when the set is transformed into Berenson’s richly detailed and shadowy study. John Gromada also provides the right musical palette.