"Analyze this painting as if you were a critic," a Nazi says to Picasso. "Alright," the artist replies. "Give me a blindfold."
So much for endearing yourself to critics. The tradition of ripping on reviewers is long and richly deserved, with Tom Stoppard showing everybody else how it's done. His 1968 farce, The Real Inspector Hound, features two preening critics who find themselves trapped in an Agatha Christie–style murder mystery. They're irredeemable little monsters, and they both wind up dead. But hey — if you gotta go, you could do a lot worse than be gunned down in a play by Tom Stoppard. You could, for instance, end up as a Nazi in a play by Jeffrey Hatcher.
Hatcher is probably best known for writing the screenplay for Stage Beauty, the 2004 movie that showcased Billy Crudup's considerable talent while confirming that Claire Danes should steer clear of British accents. But the playwright's talent is on much livelier display in the 1996 stage piece Three Viewings, an evening of three bittersweet monologues delivered from the confines of a funeral parlor. In that play, he manages to achieve an unusually fine balance between dark humor and tender emotion, clinching the deal with one of the most satisfying endings I've ever seen.
Hatcher's 2005 play, A Picasso, being staged by Expression Productions at Royce Gallery, is somewhat less successful. Set during the Nazi occupation of Paris, the play finds Pablo Picasso (Andrey Esterlis) summoned by German occupation forces for an impromptu interrogation. He arrives in a warehouse full of confiscated artwork, where he is coolly greeted by Ms. Fischer (Brittany Kilcoyne McGregor), who identifies herself as a "cultural attaché." Her job, she explains, is to confirm the authenticity of three Picasso paintings confiscated from Jewish households. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, has planned a group exhibition of works by Miró, Klee, Picasso, and others. Naturally, everyone would prefer that the works be genuine.
Picasso is suspicious, since the Nazis never showed much interest in his work. "Germans want kids and dogs and Poland," he quips. But as soon as he confirms the authenticity of the paintings, Fischer reveals that the "group exhibition" is in fact a giant bonfire for the destruction of "degenerate art." Picasso immediately scrambles to save his work, reversing his claim of authenticity and insisting that all three paintings are fakes.
So begins a one-hour struggle between two determined adversaries. Hatcher is always good for a few twists, and A Picasso certainly supplies its share. But the piece doesn't quite click. Any play about Nazis ought to generate a palpable sense of danger, and this one never quite convinced me that anything meaningful was at stake.
Perhaps that's as much a staging problem as a script problem. Royce Gallery is an open, airy studio space with high ceilings — not the ideal setting for a play about entrapment. Brendan Aanes' set makes little attempt to draw the audience into a more confined space, and his lighting never takes advantage of the material's potential for claustrophobia.
All signs point to a troubled production. Both actors acquit themselves well, which is remarkable considering what they've been through. The original leading man exited the show one week prior to opening night, leaving Esterlis, the director, to play the role himself. Casting yourself as a last-minute understudy sounds like the worst of theatrical nightmares, but he turns in a vivid, funny, fittingly off-kilter performance.
The director's unexpected double duty might explain why the play is so visually static — neither actor moves from his or her chair for a freaking eternity. Perhaps Esterlis found it too difficult to stage movement while mastering the dialogue in such a short period. Or perhaps he needs to apply more energy toward creating some visual flair. Whatever the reason, this particular production would work almost as well as an audio presentation, especially since a few of the props are distractingly low-grade. If you're going to produce a play about three paintings by Picasso, it might be a good idea to create or obtain three passable reproductions, rather than to show us a sheet of paper and call it a Picasso. If your budget will allow only the sheet of paper, then it's either time to get more creative with your props or choose another play. Or maybe not charge $28 per person. Or something.
At this point, you may be thinking that Hatcher is perfectly justified in conflating critics with Nazis. "I am an expert on Picasso," Fischer tells the artist. "You are a critic!" he replies in horror. The interrogator then reveals that despite her personal affection for Picasso's art, she has been known to criticize his work in order to gain favor with the ascendant Nazi Party. It's possible that Hatcher's play emerged, at least in part, from the critical response to Stage Beauty; David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, described the playwright as "not even ... second-rate." That's enough to inspire anybody to play the Hitler card.
But not all critics are part of a vast conspiracy for global domination — at least, not all the time. We only occasionally pursue elaborate agendas in the name of crass self-promotion. Most of the time, we just call it like it is. And sometimes it's as simple as this: A Picasso isn't worth your time.