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Theatre in Review: Beneath the Gavel (Bated Breath Theatre Company)

Debra Walsh. Photo: Will Gangi.

In Beneath the Gavel, the members of Connecticut-based Bated Breath Theatre Company want to take you inside the glamorous, intrigue-filled, cutthroat world of art auctions. To do so, they have put a full inventory of theatrical goods on offer: The show mixes a narrative line about an American artist and his wealthy German patron/subject with choreographed sequences, brisk lectures about the art business, drop-ins from a variety of art-world stars ranging from Jackson Pollock to Damien Hirst, and a series of art sales in which the audience, fixed up with play money, bids on paintings.

Well, you won't be bored. If you don't like something in Beneath the Gavel, wait five minutes; the playwright/director, Mara Lieberman, certainly keeps things hustling along. "Hustling" is the operative word here, as practically everyone in the play has con artist tendencies. But don't take my word for it: Listen to the characters. Geoffrey, who works for a major auction house, notes, "The art market is the least regulated market in the world," by way of saying that whatever the client wants, the client gets. Tracey, an auctioneer, addressing the audience, comments, "This is about smoke and mirrors! We like the fact that you really have no idea of what we're doing up here." She adds that most art comes up for sale thanks to "the three Ds: death, debt, and divorce" -- and she clearly sees delightful opportunities in all of them. The buyers aren't much better; they barely look at the art itself, so blinded are they by dollar signs. ("But it's a Gagosian for sale at Christie's. How can I go wrong?") This system, which is more about trading than aesthetics, facilitates poseurs whose bizarre stylistic crimes are little more than blatant cries for attention. One gallerist reports, "So the artist comes in and they bring a quarter ton of lard and a quarter ton of chocolate." The idea, she adds, is the "artwork" degrades while on display. "The chocolate gets really shiny and nasty. The lard goes rancid." Another work is produced, a small brown substance on a canvas. Yes, it's called "A piece of shit."

Or consider this comment: "In the art world, if your hair is on fire, no one will bring you a glass of water." This is uttered by Haddie Weisenberg, a German lady of a certain age and vast resources, who, in the late 1980s, takes up with Daniel Zeigler, a young American painter living the expatriate's life in Berlin. Haddie, who probably would like to sleep with Daniel, gives him various forms of advice and succor; she also poses for him. When he decides he must try his luck in New York, she gets him an introduction to Larry Gagosian, and his career takes off. Thirty years later, Haddie is gone and her collection is to be auctioned off; this is the event that kicks off the frantic activity that constitutes Beneath the Gavel.

Obviously, we're not dealing with Tom Wolfe-level satire here. In a mildly amusing lecture about how not to behave at a sale, we are warned, "Don't yell 'My kid could do that!'" But nothing much in Beneath the Gavel is any fresher than that old saw -- a fact that would matter less if the action were more focused and the script's observations had more sting. As it is, it's a disorganized collage of scenes and styles, all of them deployed to make the same rather obvious point: As no less august a personage than Larry Gagosian tells us, "It's an act of collective faith what an object is worth. Maintaining that value system is part of what a dealer does, not just making a transaction but making sure that important art feels important." In other words, you pay your money and you take your chances.

The drawing card, I suppose, is the auctions: Before the bidding begins, members of the company shoot "money" out of air guns -- talk about papering the house. We grab at the bills as they fall around us, and, numbered plastic paddles in hand, we are invited to bid competitively on a number of artworks. The first round is rather fun, but it palls a bit with repetition. The main problem with Beneath the Gavel is there's not enough narrative to hold it together and it's a stylistic mishmash. It also seems to think portraying the art world as populated strictly with phonies and pretenders, virtually all of them eyeing the bottom line, is the freshest of ideas.

The actors are all adept at switching characters at a moment's notice. For me, there are two standouts: Debra Walsh is a pleasure, whether spreading her own brand of weltschmerz as Haddie; casting cynical glances as a seen-it-all dealer; and, as the proprietor of a downtown gallery, interviewing a fantastically entitled young thing for the job of her assistant. (The young lady announces, "I am planning to work my way up to an upper-level gallery. But, I'll start wherever I have to in order to get there. And, I like your gallery. I think it's sweet." Walsh's character replies "Lucky my friend Andy is dead. He would chew you up and spit you out." We are never in doubt as to which Andy she means.) As the auctioneer, Missy Burmeister suavely explains her tricks for driving up the price of artworks, then deploys them in plain sight during the bidding sessions.

There always seems to be an audience for anything that smacks of immersive theatre, so 59E59 will probably have a fairly easy time keeping Theatre B filled for the duration of Beneath the Gavel's run. But I do wish everyone involved had employed more stylistic rigor and aimed for sharper satire. And it's rather unseemly to criticize the shallowness of others when your play is little more than a bag of tricks. -- David Barbour


(22 March 2017)

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