Jon Robin Baitz has a singular talent as a playwright for combining smart and biting social criticism with humor and tenderness, and this talent is very much on view in his latest, "Ten Unknowns," In this brooding play about the dark side of creativity and the eternal cruelty of fashion to those who depend on it, he takes a long, unsentimental look at an aging expatriate painter from East L.A. chased into obscurity years ago by the army of Abstract Expressionists and all that came after them.
Stacy Keach, reminding us what a formidable actor he is, plays the painter, Malcolm Raphelson, in the West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. Keach unfurls the fury and sardonic asides of a hard-drinking old master who has watched the art world pass him by and never forgiven those responsible -- the careerists, tastemakers and museums that enshrined his enemies. Indeed, Baitz likens Malcolm to an exiled soldier who's been at war for 30 years with the fates and other artists in what is truly a battle to the death. (Is this really how artists think of one another? Who knew.) Malcolm's bitterness is nevertheless endearing, at least at first, because of the way Baitz has made his case and the convincing manner in which Keach delivers it.
It might be said this could depend on how you feel about Malcolm's WPA mural-trained talent, which is not left to the imagination but unveiled graphically in a number of realist landscapes and portraits (actually done by the Irish painter Conor Foy). Eric Fischl he's not. And that's very much to the point.
In any case, when the lights come up on Malcolm's ramshackle studio deep in the heart of Mexico in 1992, we are thrust immediately into a situation of irony: a voguish and clever New York dealer (Patrick Breen) has ventured here on a mission of rediscovery, with aims to mount a major retrospective of the artist's work in Manhattan. The dealer has already sent ahead a former boyfriend, Judd, a young, apparently feckless art school grad (Jonathan M. Woodward), to help the once-great man get back into production mode and crank out some new and marketable works.
Breen, in pinstripe finery and perfect downtown gallery manners, makes Trevor into a finely observed foil for Malcolm's rude and roaring iconoclast and is at all times perfectly out of place in Malcolm's remote "Night of the Iguana"-themed hide-out.
Into the mix comes an alluring young Berkeley biologist, Julia (Klea Scott), who's in Mexico on the trail of an endangered species of frogs but gets intrigued by the endangered species represented by Malcolm. For a moment in Act I, with all four of these characters sleeping under the same roof and talking smart and funny about art, "Ten Unknowns" looks like it might become an existentialist version of "Hay Fever." But Baitz has more on his mind than that. Just before intermission, Malcolm's unreliable creative powers are stirred to action by the sight of Julia, and he starts to paint a portrait of his Russian mother from memory but needs Judd's help to finish it. The play veers off into a probe of the complex psychology of mothers and sons as well as the volatile relationship between old pros and their apprentices, touching a vein that surfaced in the recent plays "Collected Stories" and "Proof."
Malcolm's memories of his mother, a poor Russian immigrant who settled in Boyle Heights, send him into murky reverie that goes some distance toward explaining his alienation and lifelong animus. Under Robert Egan's direction, Keach, wearing the artist's uniform of moldy jeans and paint-spattered shirts, embodies so well the alternately compelling and repugnant life force of a man like Malcolm, seemingly sensitive and insensitive in equal, incompatible portions.
Egan, whose work with Baitz is well-known and dates to "The Film Society" at LATC in the late 1980s, is very good with intellectual plays in which most of what happens to the characters comes in the form of argument and telling observation. Such is the case here. Even as one wonders what resonance a play like this will have with audiences that have never heard of the Whitney Biennial or might not see tragedy in the triumph of Abstract Expressionism, it's hard not to admire the ambition of what Baitz has set out to do in mapping a side of the artistic life not often seen in the culture pages.
"Pastel condos are going up and those frogs are going to Guatemala," Malcolm barks to Julia, announcing his view of the pointlessness of trying to save the world from what it is. "There are endings. Things dies off. This whole nation is built on extinction and extermination."
There is little here to send aspiring painters running to their easels or writers to the joy of their word processors, yet what raises the temperature of Baitz's characters above the "Ice Age" that young Judd describes as the curse of his post-Modern generation, is a rollicking wit and politically incorrect badinage that makes its own statement of purpose. We might conclude, at least where Baitz is concerned, that being smart may not be the answer but is an answer. Language can still take us in out of the cold.
The play's title refers to Malcolm's brush with fame as a young man, when he was included in a prominent exhibition before disappearing into exile. In the fairy-tale Hollywood culture that shapes us all, Malcolm's overlooked talent would in the end be recognized, of course, and he would return to New York to become a star at last. It's interesting to watch how ambivalent Malcolm is to the cheap celebrity he has scorned when the possibility of attaining it resurfaces. He, too, reads People magazine apparently -- not that he would admit it.
In the end, "Ten Unknowns" is a thoughtful and engaging rumination on the fickleness of success in the world of art and perhaps the world beyond, given a largely pleasing production at the Taper. It's flawed by a story line that doesn't come to much of a conclusion while trying to wrest a final smile from a look into the abyss. Julia is not much more than a sketch of a character, and Scott does little to rescue her. But Woodward navigates the surprising and wide-ranging emotional arc of Judd, from aimless post-grad to tortured victim of art's hidden tyranny. And then there's Keach. What a performance. How many actors can manage such thunder and such sweet pain? He's been away from the Los Angeles stage too long. Welcome back.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Exceptions: April 30, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; May 4, 2:30 p.m. only
Ends: May 4
Price: $31 to $45
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Stacy Keach...Malcolm Raphelson
Jonathan M. Woodward...Judd Sturgess
Patrick Breen...Trevor Fabricant
Klea Scott...Julia Bryant
Written by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Robert Egan. Sets by David Jenkins. Costumes by Joyce Kim Lee. Lighting by Michael Gilliam. Paintings by Conor Foy.