A museum director’s life might not at first be seen as a natural for stage dramatization. But the charismatic A. Everett “Chick” Austin’s life is a dynamic work of art unto itself, filled with incident, color and characters, and embracing a time between the wars that represented a period of unequaled cultural excitement in America. Unfortunately, only so much of this is suggested in David Grimm’s awkwardly named bioplay, premiering on Austin’s home turf in a production helmed by Hartford Stage a.d. Michael Wilson.
At this point, there’s likely to be limited interest beyond Connecticut stages. But a wider berth could be had if the work is further developed to better convey its irresistible subject, art and times. In its present structure, the play fails to connect. By making the drama a two-hander, Grimm gives significant but disproportionate attention to Austin’s wife Helen (Enid Graham), a devoted woman nobly pained by her husband’s homosexual affairs.
The domestic melodrama takes away from the grand and exciting world Austin (Robert Sella) created for himself and for Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, the staid Yankee museum which became a cultural beacon in America in the 1930s — most significantly in its new acquisitions, modern art exhibits and its daring embrace of music, dance and theater.
Stylistically, Grimm presents his play as three separate artworks, an interesting and apropos conceit but one that doesn’t deliver on stage.
The first section is a colorful mobile of a scene that wonderfully conveys Austin’s kinetic energy; the second is a still life that presents his coping wife with the quiet grace of a baroque painting (beautifully lit with chiaroscuro tenderness by Rui Rita); the final third takes place in Austin’s mind, representing his decline within a surrealistic dreamscape.
The first part is the most entertaining, beginning with a great entrance by Austin, dressed in colorful formal wear, arriving through an open window of a university classroom. He tells his art students (he teaches on the side) that he’s just been to a marvelous party — one of his own making and featuring a who’s who of the international art world.
Playfully limned by Sella with dash and elan, Chick is a charming and exasperating force, sophisticated yet childlike, naughty and knowing, possessing an amazing eye for art yet paranoid about his place at the museum. It’s a rhapsody of a performance that captures the conflicting nature of this divided self of a modern man. With one foot in the old world and another in the new, this bisected figure shows us not only how to see art anew but how to live it, too.
Grimm (“Measure for Pleasure,” “Kit Marlowe”) is a writer with lingual dexterity and classic sophistication. Here he displays his cunning, punning wit but he also shows his subject’s shadows of zealotry, insecurity and shame.
The classroom setting, designed with clean modern lines and spaces by Tony Straiges, is an apt device for Austin to talk about his travails with his trustees, his autobiography and his relationships with the leading cultural figures of the day. It also allows for an engaging art appreciation course, complete with slides, that shows Austin’s connoisseurship and passion.
But when Chick leaves the room, an emptiness descends on the play that’s not adequately filled by Helen, despite the enduring elegance and sadness brought to the role by Enid Graham, Sella’s real-life wife. Helen is sophisticated and insightful, as she adds more details to Chick’s story and their modern marriage of parallel lives. But she’s also a passive presence in repose; her “why aren’t I enough for him?” laments bring the work down to maudlin level. It’s a change of perspective and pacing that takes the play away from its central character and its power.
The final section shows a less-assured Chick is his declining days, freshly fired from the museum and on tour as a magician named the Great Osram, one of his many side interests and personas. As the dress rehearsal for the magic act goes increasingly wrong, Austin begins to unravel. The abstract expression of a scene that takes place in his mind becomes a kind of curated and footnoted “Rose’s Turn,” before it concludes with Austin’s return to the loving Helen, the only time they meet on stage.
But audiences have not sufficiently experienced the man to be moved by his fall or connected enough to the woman to be touched by their reunion. What we have is a short, single viewing of a wondrous self-creation. For a man who could fill an epic canvas, it’s not enough.