Former 1980s New York wunderkind artist Louis Fury (Arye Gross) and his long-suffering jewelry designer wife, Renee (Jeanie Hackett), are clinging to the tattered remains of his career and are even willing to go to Pittsburgh to hang on in Kenneth Robins sharp-edged comedy/drama. “Black Box” owes much of its success to the amazingly creative production designs surrounding it, high-lighted by the expressionistic, modular setting of Lawrence Miller, the atmosphere enhancing lighting of Rand Ryan and the evocative original music and sound of Peter Golub and Angelo Palazzo, respectively. Director David Schweizer occasionally allows the energy and thrust of this intriguing journey through one man’s creative and spiritual catharsis to falter but the ensemble is outstanding.
Louis sums up the deconstruction of his life and career to his wife by uttering, “We have no one to blame but ourselves.” Renee tartly replies, “We tried that, it doesn’t work.” Such is the ongoing repartee between the artist who still feels he can still be true to his artistic muse and his realistic wife who is holding on to her sanity by a thread as she has watched all the doors of opportunity and success slam shut against them.
In a last-ditch effort to resurrect some aspect of their former life, they have flown to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon Institute to host a presentation of Louis’s work and give a lecture on his career, all at the behest of Louis’s former college roommate, now Institute faculty member John Holland (William Bumiller). Holland has a few problems of his own, including an addiction to promiscuity and a 16-year-old son, Nick (Eric Szmanda), whose only ambition in life is to commit suicide. The ultimate hope of this trip is that multimillionaire philanthropist Andrew Mellon V (William Blakesely) and his decidedly socially inferior wife, Laura (Rhonda Aldrich) will buy one of Louis’s works, thereby giving a much-needed boost to the artist’s nonexistent artistic credibility.
Robins has created a deeply ab-sorbing premise, likening the failure of Louis’s life to the crash of an airplane when all attention is given over to finding that all-important “black box” that will give the answers to what went wrong during the flight. Louis and Renee’s misadventure in Pittsburgh is their sojourn to find their own black box, which, when opened, spews forth a nightmarish but comical cornucopia of rejection, humiliation and annihilation, before leading Louis to his even-tual rebirth and redemption.
Gross exudes a fascinating quality of gentle befuddlement as Louis, not understanding why he was once hot and now he is not. It is amazing, therefore, to watch him nearly explode out of his skin in rage at the disastrous art lecture when Louis finds himself being pummeled by what he conceives to be the forces of artistic repression. In the second act, after Louis has had a near-death experience, Gross offers a benign presence, meticulously and lovingly explaining to Nick the essence of art, as represented in El Greco’s masterpiece “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.”
Hackett is perfect as the maniacally depressed Renee, shooting her well-timed sarcasm, like missiles through whatever optimism and hope her spouse might offer. She is a constant study of hilarious disbelief and outrage as Renee suffers through her husband’s never-ending exploits at obliterating their lives.
Offering solid support are Bumiller’s Holland whose matinee idol facade masks the soul of a worm, Blakesley’s comically pompous Mellon V and Aldrich as the wonderfully tacky but sexy Mrs. Mellon.
Special mention must go to Szmanda’s riveting portrayal of the horrifically disturbed Nick. One of the true highlights of the evening comes when Nick uses his body to sensually demonstrate to Louis his deep knowledge and empathy for fine art.