Tuesday, June 12, 2007

In The Eye Of The Beholder

"Phallacy" at Cherry Lane Theatre, June 9, 2007

In an Austrian art museum, Dr. Regina Leitner-Opfermann rules (get it?) as a foremost authority on ancient sculpture. The pride of the museum's collection is an original Roman Bronze statue of a nude youth dating back to something like 300 BC. She authenticated the find several years before, published a book about it and is so totally invested in its artistic and historic value, that she cannot (or will not) see room for error. Enter Dr. Rex Stolzfuss, renowned scientist of chemistry, who has done a bit of his own testing on the statue, discovering that the statue is more likely a Renaissance reproduction than a Roman original. When he comes to Dr. Leitner-Opfermann to discuss his findings, she dismisses him out of hand, insulted that her word and work could have been questioned.

The plotting and scheming starts immediately, with Dr. Stolzfuzz ("Proud Foot") out for revenge. Dr. Leitner-Opfermann ("Lead-Victim") instantly knows where she went wrong in her own analysis and begins to search for a way to acknowledge the fact without losing face in the art community. Each is assisted in their efforts, Regina by Emma Finger, a Renaissance Art expert assigned by the museum and Rex by Otto Ellenbogen ("elbow"), his graduate assistant. It's all tied up nicely in that Otto and Emma have their own brief history of flirtation, which may have included one lusty encounter. He's smitten, but she knows it and plays it to her advantage even though she's equally as smitten, which in turn plays to his advantage.

Sounding a little contrived yet?

There's more - a sub-plot connected to the illegitimate son of HRE Charles V and his mother that ties back to the statue in question.

Playwright Carl Djerassi is by training and education a scientist and professor of chemistry at Stanford University, with both a National Medal of Science for developing "the Pill" and a National Medal of Technology, just to name a few of his professional accomplishments. Some 10 years ago, he began writing plays which have been performed around the world. "Phallacy" represents his fifth play and premiered in London in 2005. Written with a broad stroke, its exploration of art vs. science receives treatment which is, at time, a bit heavy-handed. Just the naming of the characters demonstrates that. Rex and Regina - king and queen, he the proud foot kicking down her world, she the lead victim, assistants named for bodily extremities. It doesn't really qualify as subtle, does it? Not to say that the play is without entertainment value or even a bit of education along the way. I would not have otherwise known that during the Renaissance, artists were paid by the pound for bronze sculpture which lead to pretty thick and heavy statues - a big reason why so many more survive, as opposed to the much thinner and therefore more vulnerable bronze castings from the Roman era.

As Regina, Lisa Harrow excels during her lecture monologues about the statue. She conveys a passion and love for this art that might have led to her divorce from Herr Opfermann. This actually seems like a plot point that went unexplored and might have provided some interesting depth to an otherwise simply arrogant woman. In her scenes, Ms. Harrow occasionally gets caught up in the lines, losing some of that passion so well-displayed when she described each square centimeter of the bronze.

Simon Jones' Rex doesn't quite get the same opportunity to shine. Reduced to an insulted academic with an ax to grind, he comes off as rather petty, seeking revenge against Regina for having tossed out his offer to release the news of the true age of the bronze.

As Emma, Carrie Heitman does the best she can with what she's given. She did come off a little colder than necessary in her scenes with Vince Nappo as Rex's assistant, Otto Ellenbogen. Mr. Nappo's moments to shine were in the few flashback-subplot scenes where he and Ms. Harrow played the illegitimate son of HRE Charles V and his mother.

Director Elena Araoz keeps a nice pace on this little pot-boiler, but there's not enough fuel in the material for it to really build into something worthwhile. Susan Zeeman Rogers' sets place everything just a bit off-center in her abstract setting that allows for easy transition from office to museum gallery to 16th Century Luxembourg. Katy Tucker's projection design is a clever technique projecting images over Mr. Nappo's and Ms. Harrow's bodies to effect a costume change.

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