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Theatre in Review: Paul Swan is Dead and Gone (Torn/Page)

Tony Torn. Photo: Maria Baranova.

There's a kind of séance taking place these nights in the Chelsea townhouse once owned by the actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page. (Hence the venue's name.) The spirit getting called up is one of the more bizarre, wildly self-invented characters of twentieth-century America, a multi-hyphenate artist who used a combination of talent, knockout looks, and sheer chutzpah to forge a series of Zelig-like relationships with many of his era's boldface names. Paul Swan was known as "the most beautiful man in the world," an assertion that contemporary photographs support. An Illinois farm boy, he was an outlier from the get-go. According to one account, "he was an eccentric from childhood, alienating himself from his family and all of his neighbors by covering his hands and face with burlap sacks as he plowed so that he wouldn't get a tell-tale farmer's sunburn." With that attitude, he must have been a real hit with the locals.

Fleeing to New York, he found work as an illustrator, then charmed the actress Alla Nazimova into doing several portraits of her. A grand tour of Europe -- which included stopovers in Egypt and Greece -- fed his taste for the grand manner and an interest in classical culture. Untrained as a dancer, he managed to study with Isadora Duncan. Back in New York, his dance concerts turned initially derisive audiences into cheering supporters. He continued on other fronts, appearing in a few silent films, turning out paintings and sculpture -- his subjects ultimately included Maurice Ravel, Willa Cather, and Pope Paul VI -- and dancing weekly for audiences at Carnegie Studios. He let the last activity run on rather too long; by the 1960s, audiences were taking note of his dyed hair, heavy makeup, and, under the togas, decaying physique, and the former Adonis became a figure of fun. He was taken up by Andy Warhol, who cast him in a couple of films. I haven't seen them, but it must be something to see this ruined hothouse creature from another era running around with the likes of Gerard Malanga, Mario Montez, Jack Smith, and Baby Jane Holzer.

Written by Claire Kiechel, Swan's great grandniece, Paul Swan is Dead and Gone is a fairly chaotic affair, an evening of alarms and excursions that doesn't do nearly enough to get inside the head of this professional eccentric. The script tries, rather uncertainly, to play him for laughs, aiming for camp hilarity but lacking the grasp of comic detail that would make Swan amusing, compelling, pitiable, or all three. Kiechel focuses on Swan in decline, well past the point of dressing in revealing togas, lost in memories of his past. He makes his entrance emerging from an Egyptian sarcophagus, having been introduced as "the man who starred in The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur and got rave reviews in both [well, not really], the man who Marcel Duchamp loved so much that he painted him as a carrot, the man who escaped eternity and has had not one but two Andy Warhol films made about him."

In the person of Tony Torn, who, in certain moments, reminds one of Sydney Greenstreet, Swan certainly is one for the books. Offering the secret to "this perpetual youth of mine," he prescribes a combination of laxatives, olive oil baths, and cold milk scrubs; next, he blows into a conch shell to summon his goddess. Recalling his youth, he says he "was the sort of person to say 'drapes' instead of 'curtains,' to say 'davenport' instead of 'couch'." Growing up lonely, he adds that "Wagner and Bernhardt and Wilde...became the parents I needed in the end. Because Wagner, he liked wearing costumes. And Wilde, he liked bon mots. And Byron liked to show his ankles." Solidifying his sense of self, "I covered my skin, made dolls from crushed wool, danced around in veils and white ribbons." Yes, I'm sure they didn't know what to make of him down on the farm.

Later, he adds, Isadora Duncan "held my face in her hands and told me I reminded her of Dorian Grey before he knew sin! Isn't that fantastic!" Armed with his ideas about the dance, he describes his initial performance before a skeptical, laughing audience. "I was devastaté," he says, expertly mangling the French pronunciation not for the last time. Lecturing his viewers, he says, "My dance is a conduit of those unconscious forces that can only be expressed in movement: The Eleusinian Mysteries, the Bacchante Rituals, the Convulsive Ecstasies of the Pythia, movements that cannot be written down in a book." Turning disaster into triumph ("Boys fainted, women screamed"), he adds, "And I knew this was where I belonged, in front of people like you. The only place I can dare to be myself!"

What really drove Swan through his crowded existence is never really illuminated Kiechel's script alludes to affairs with his male musical accompanists as well as a boy that got away in the form of a Manchester, England, factory worker from whom Swan was separated by World War II. Most of the time, however, these myrrh-scented proceedings skirt chaos, thanks to a series of dramatic devices that stir up a ruckus without revealing much of anything. It will probably do the cause of clarity no good to add that we are introduced to a pair of young ladies known as the Paul Swan dancers, who later return as his real-life daughters (Flora and Paula) and, later, as Susan Sontag and the novelist James Purdy (whose book I Am Elijah Thrush is based on Swan's life) to comment on the nature of camp. Or that Bellamy, his twentysomething pianist, exits and, after screams and the sounds of a fistfight, returns, announcing that he is named Bollany, and that in both incarnations he is resentful at being cast off by Swan. This is less a play than a fantasia on the theme of Paul Swan, and whether you are willing to go along with it will depend, in part, on a certain kind of helter-skelter dramaturgy.

Torn, a gifted character actor, certainly throws himself into the persona of Swan, running around lightly clad and sometimes topless, lording it over the audience, singing and dancing (sort of), and engaging in furious spats with his supporting cast. As written, however, he is an attitude rather than a character, a camp queen whose best lines are neither quite good enough for straight-up amusement nor sufficiently insightful. His performance suffers to the degree that the script cares more about making a spectacle of Swan than understanding his strange, decades-long trajectory from the Midwest to the Warhol Factory. The whole Bellamy-Bollany business makes no sense, but Robert M. Johanson, as both, carries on bravely and provides solid musical support. As Flora and Paula (and Sontag and Purdy), Helen Cespedes and Alexis Scott are a pair of exceptionally game gals.

The set designer, Andromache Chalfant, has transformed an upstairs parlor at Torn/Page into an atmospheric, if not terribly comfortable, salon, with bottle-green walls, a gilded fireplace screen, and a gallery's worth of abstract paintings. An-Lin Dauber's costumes are appropriately outrageous for Swan and solidly in period for the others. Lucrecia Briceño's lighting relies on too many garish saturated-color washes. Avia A. Amon's sound design includes a few key effects, such as gunfire.

The trouble with Paul Swan is Dead and Gone is that, even reading about him on the Internet, he seems far more interesting that anything we see in Kiechel's play. She doesn't have a perceptive-enough slant on her lead character -- whether it be satirical or sympathetic or both -- to make him compelling. (An acclaimed biography, The Most Beautiful Man in the World: Paul Swan from Wilde to Warhol, by Janis and Richard Londraville, is said to make a solid case for him as an artist.) Watching Swan carry on at Torn/Page, Sontag says, "Camp is too much. Camp is only good because it's awful. I don't know if this is awful enough." I know just what she means. --David Barbour


(13 May 2019)

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