It must have seemed like a great coup for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to open its current Studio Rep season with Jeffrey Hatcher's A Picasso. This local production is being staged six months ahead of the play's scheduled New York opening next April.
Hatcher is what is known as "hot." He's busy. He wrote the book for the recent Broadway musical Never Gonna Dance and the screenplay adaptation of his play Compleat Female Stage Beauty. The movie, which stars Billy Crudup and Claire Danes and now bears the truncated title Stage Beauty, opened two weeks ago to enthusiastic reviews -- as it should have, for Hatcher's script percolates with imagination, originality and wit.
But to see A Picasso is to realize that there might be method behind Hatcher's willingness to make the play available to regional theaters before the New York critics render judgment. It's not that this 70-minute interlude about an imaginary non-event in Picasso's life is a bad play; it's barely a play at all. It's more of a conceit than a drama.
Picasso is probably the most written-about painter of all time. So in order not to be constrained by fact, or even truth, Hatcher places Picasso into a situation that never happened; now the painter can say things he never said and do things he never did. OK, perhaps such fantasy falls under the definition of drama. But what is that situation? In occupied Paris at the outset of World War II, Picasso is confronted by a Nazi agent who labels his artwork "degenerate." The artist must choose which of three works is to be destroyed and which spared. Sound familiar? The situation bears an uncanny similarity to William Styron's Sophie's Choice -- except that now the story line lacks any sense of alarm or dread.
Presumably this confrontation is supposed to lead to a probing debate about the role of the persecuted artist. But the dialogue doesn't go any deeper than oil on a palette. "Art has no weight against politics," the interrogator accuses. That's as thoughtful as Hatcher gets. Instead of content we're taken through the external trappings of a play: the false exits, the obligatory monologues, the clunky transitional lines ("Let's finish this, shall we?").
Yet A Picasso doesn't sustain itself, the way a Picasso does. There's no crescendo, no climax. When the opening-night performance ended, the audience didn't even know the show was over until Rep staffers discreetly began to applaud.
In a situation like this, it's tough to evaluate performances. Both actors worked hard, and they seemed to work well together. As Picasso, Matt Landers had an effectively uncanny way of wearing his beret at a jaunty angle that mirrored the slant of his ski-jump eyebrows. As the elusive inquisitor, Felicity La Fortune had the arduous task of personifying a sketch. But then, sometimes elusive and sketchy is preferable to overwritten.
The production is staged in the round. Director Susan Gregg adroitly keeps her actors moving in a subtle manner that doesn't call attention to itself, while still allowing everyone in the audience to see faces and actions. Yet it might be that her blocking, which so well serves the viewer, is not the best way to serve the play. For what is mostly missing here is a sense of peril and menace.
Elia Kazan, the great stage and film director, observed that drama is created when two characters "can't get away from each other." Think of the memorable taxicab scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in Kazan's On the Waterfront. A Picasso, which is set in a vault below the streets of Paris, offers the potential for that kind of claustrophobic dynamic. And indeed, the only moments where the action is cattle-prodded into vitality occur when Picasso and his inquisitor are literally at each other's throats. Otherwise, it may well be that space is the enemy of this thin script.
Not that all is lost. On their final Monday night off, and then again on the Monday night after A Picasso closes, La Fortune and Landers (both of whom possess musical theater backgrounds) will transform a Webster Groves bistro into the kind of 1941 Parisian cabaret Picasso might have patronized. It's a safe bet that while performing the classic songs of Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill, among others, these two actor-singers will find a welcome release for the kind of storytelling passion that eludes Hatcher's evening with Pablo.