An all but extinct West End aesthetic gets resurrected in “The Old Masters,” the Simon Gray play that trades on the trappings of civility, playing to an older, moneyed theatergoing public that can’t believe its luck. When was the last time you went to a play whose leads appeared in formal wear and pinstripe suits, arguing about Venetian art? Hell, even the first-act change of set takes place to choral sounds that bring to mind the genteel London theater of a bygone age, when dapper men were allowed an array of mistresses and nary a cloud existed to darken the sun-drenched Italian vista of the opening scene. (The gorgeous design, the production’s one unassailable glory, is by Eileen Diss.)
A storm does gather by the final curtain, as befits a play set on the eve of a combat (World War II) that would blast the apparent serenity of even Europe’s more rarefied climes sky high. But there will be many, I suspect, who won’t mind that the old masters involved in “The Old Masters” — from Gray to director Harold Pinter, the two marking their ninth collaboration, and on to co-star Edward Fox — aren’t in sustainedly peak form. An etiolated first act gives way to an overheated second one, and still you can practically hear the audience breathing a collective sigh of relief: At last, a play that, whatever its flaws, talks up to the spectator, even if the talk is in the end more repetitive and less resonant than one expected.
Name-dropping from the art-historical arena (Mellon and Frick get a mention or two) isn’t enough on which to build an evening, and Gray ultimately doesn’t widen his deliberately narrow focus into the metaphoric realm that might give “The Old Masters” the vaunted reach of the Giorgione canvas on which its narrative depends. (To that extent, you could argue that, for all its debate about art, the play isn’t “Art.”) You listen, intrigued, as the painting is said to spill in meaning into the great if also grim world beyond, and then you wait in vain for the play to do the same.
But if the writing cannot transcend what Fox’s Bernard Berenson describes as “a little nod in a Tuscan library at midnight,” that tilt of the head may, for some, be enough of a tease to override a cat-and-mouse game that has backed itself into a corner well before the climactic rumble has come portentously to call.
The principal sparring partners are the Lithuanian-born, Harvard-educated Berenson, the art historian in whose Italian villa events unfold, and his chum and business partner of some 30 years, art dealer Joseph Duveen (Peter Bowles, every inch the cigar-wielding smoothie).
You would think Berenson was busy enough juggling the women in his midst, from ailing wife Mary (Barbara Jefford, her accent drifting between continents) to younger lover Nicky (a svelte Sally Dexter, looking terrific) to a Swedish masseuse, who remains unseen. (Just as well, presumably, lest the play abandon its more high-flown impulses in favor of a Feydeau farce.)
But the nub of the drama kicks in minutes before the close of the first act: Preceded by his emissary, Fowles (Steven Pacey), Duveen has come to demand that Berenson change the attribution of a crucial painting from the prolific Titian to the less ubiquitous Giorgione, who, having died younger, is therefore worth far more.
Offering a decidedly dubious hug, Duveen is instead met with a handshake from Berenson and the promise of a second act that will subject individual scruples to the same scrutiny Berenson has long taken toward authenticating works of art.
As debate plays go, “The Old Masters” doesn’t exactly occupy the visceral terrain of, say, “Oleanna,” whose London preem is also on Pinter’s directing resume. And throughout, you sense Gray’s keenness to remain accessible (note the proliferation of “as you said” and “as I said before” as a sign of the reiterations of the text), so that the points of opposition are emphatically made plain. Duveen, the enthusiastic man of the people and borderline vulgarian, pretends to have the emotional goods on the self-doubting Berenson, the recluse scholar and cynic whose reputation is ebbing along with his finances.
In fact, control continually shifts between the men and then on to the two women, tempers rising in rather contrived accordance with the brewing conflicts outside the villa’s gates. And whereas Berenson’s awareness of Mussolini is early on the stuff of jokes (he prefers to think of “Il duce” as “the duck” and squawks accordingly), there’s no levity to this aesthete’s vision of the “new age” to come: a war that, says Berenson, who was born a Jew, will “wipe the slate clean,” resulting in a blank canvas of a most chilling sort.
At such junctures, Gray nearly makes a tussle over artistic exactitude into something momentous, while planting the idea that issues of signature and authorship shouldn’t matter as long as art is viewed as “a glory in itself.”
One’s view of Fox, meanwhile, may depend on a willingness to accept the endearingly walrus-like Englishman (those eyebrows!) as the utterly un-English amalgam Berenson actually was, while Bowles lends brio to a silkily spoken entrepreneurial heavy who — this is Italy, after all — sounds as if he could well have amici in the Mafia.
If both men, as well as the redoubtable Jefford, sometimes reach too fevered a pitch, there’s always the allure of a play that does at least keep you guessing until its reversals and recriminations finally run out of gas.