With his earlier play “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” being filmed in England this summer, Jeffrey Hatcher’s gift for making interesting plays out of quirky historical footnotes seems to have found its moment. Occupied Paris, 1941. A Piranesi-like prison. Cool blonde in trenchcoat and slouch hat makes a noirish entrance. Miss Fischer has come to interrogate Picasso: She has, among many other works of “degenerate art,” three drawings which she wants the Master to authenticate as his for an “exhibition” which is Nazispeak for bonfire at the Tuilleries. “No collection is complete without a Picasso.”
This intriguing fabrication based on a few historical facts provides Hatcher with a chance to use a ready-made dramatic character –the Picasso legend is larger than any play that contains him — and have him tell lots of good Picasso stories, many of which may be apocryphal. (When he finished Gertrude Stein’s portrait she said, “But I don’t look like that.” “But you will,” Picasso answered. “And she does,” he adds.)
At nearly 60, he is still in his sexual prime, immensely clever (their battle of wits and wills has a nifty resolution — he sketches his interrogator and signs it, thereby providing her with an incontrovertibly authentic Picasso to burn). He is also insufferably self-absorbed (he sketches his own grief-stricken face the moment when he hears that his great friend Apollinaire has died, probably because of Picasso’s betrayal) and has the confidence of a genius who has never doubted his powers.
The play is full of witty one-liners and snappy ripostes, but despite its art-crit material, it is essentially about theater’s favorite subject: illusion and reality. The tricky problem Hatcher faces is that some of the information is obvious to anyone who knows anything about modern art, but those puzzled by names like Leger, Ernst and Miro, or who don’t know that “Henri” is Matisse and “Georges” is Braque, will be hopelessly left behind .
The dramatic challenge is made trickier by the inherent lack of drama in watching people talk about pictures you can’t see. Plays about artists always have to deal with the problem of the art itself, and this production — which is full of tiptop talent — manages pretty well, although even at 80 minutes, it sometimes feels long, with convoluted explanations about art forgery and a long story about the theft of the “Mona Lisa.”
Jeffrey DeMunn is a human Picasso, creating the immense, seductive personality with necessary restraint (the temptations to go over the top are terrific). His eyes glitter with self-satisfaction, and he stands so close to Miss Fischer that you can hear the electricity crackle. Lisa Bane is equally fine in the far more complicated role of Miss Fischer, who has loved Picasso’s work since she was a girl, devoting her critical career to his. Then she became an instrument for the German Ministry of Culture and kept her cultivated parents alive only because of her apostasy. We see glimpses — but only glimpses — of her struggle to free herself from guilt and from her devotion to the artist. Politics and sexuality and art merge in her responses — and therein lies the really interesting, but overshadowed, center of the play.
The conclusion of the play seems a trivialization of the big ideas and big passions we’ve been watching and listening to. It’s a chance to let the audience chuckle knowingly: It all comes down to sexual seduction, and, although we might not know much about art, we know all about that.