* Written by Jon Robin Baitz * Directed by Daniel Sullivan * Starring Donald Sutherland, Julianna Margulies, Denis O’Hare, and Justin Kirk * Lincoln Center Theater, New York City, through April 15.

“How do you decide which horror to notice?” This question, rhetorically muttered by the embittered old painter who is the central character of *Ten Unknowns*, could double as the artistic credo of the play’s author. In the seven plays he’s written in 15 years, Jon Robin Baitz has focused on corruption and moral rot as it shows up in various corners of business -- publishing, academia, high finance, Hollywood.

Here he takes on the art world. Malcolm Raphelson (blandly played by Donald Sutherland) is an obscure figurative painter who felt shut out when Abstract Expressionism hit the art world and fled to rural Mexico for an extended period of heavy drinking and not painting. Hoping to launch a lucrative rediscovery campaign, his ambitious dealer Trevor Fabricant (a superbly irritating performance by Denis O’Hare) has arranged a 50-year retrospective at a New York gallery. To pull some new work out of the old guy, Trevor has dispatched his ex-lover Judd Sturgess (the mesmerizing Justin Kirk), an aspiring painter and part-time junkie, to work as his assistant. The matchmaking seems to have worked. A number of striking new paintings have appeared, and Trevor, who has already sold them sight unseen, has come to collect them. The problem, we learn as the first act closes, is that Malcolm is too rusty and terrified to touch brush to canvas, and the images have been executed by Justin.

If Baitz had stopped there, he would have created an evocative one-act play with three sharply drawn characters, leaving the audience pondering the mysteries of collaboration, blocked creativity, and male mentorship. Unfortunately, the second act goes on to overexplain everything the audience has already gleaned, turning the characters into one-note types: the hypocritical failed artist, the greedy art dealer, the self-destructive fag. A fourth character, a Berkeley graduate student researching a nearly-extinct species of frog, is around to provide some anemic heterosexual love interest. Played somnolently by Julianna Margulies, she spouts cringe-worthy lines like “I don’t understand how you artists live with all this feeling.” Worst of all, the play spends an inordinate amount of time making the kind of philistine pronouncements about abstract and conceptual art that have always been made by people who know nothing about art. Such cheap shots and corny pseudo-conflicts are unworthy of a writer with Baitz’s fierce intelligence.

The Advocate, April 24, 2001

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