at the Royal George Theatre Center

The Berlin Circle

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold, / Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould; / And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart, / Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

–Rudyard Kipling, The Conundrum of the Workshops

On the east side of Halsted, at the Royal George Theatre, three friends debate the meaning of art. On the west side, at Steppenwolf, a writer struggles to determine what political function art serves, if any. The fact that either question is being addressed is cause for celebration. But the two questions and the ways they’re tackled mark a profound distinction between the two plays.

Yasmina Reza’s Art at the Royal George is a contemplative, somewhat bourgeois play ultimately less concerned with art than with the narcissists who discuss it. Charles L. Mee’s The Berlin Circle is a play of action. Set in Germany about the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mee’s play struggles to define the artist’s role in society–something the self-involved trio in Art would probably never even consider.

Winner of the 1998 Tony Award and New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play and London’s 1997 Olivier Award for best comedy, Art has already been performed in 30 languages. The Berlin Circle isn’t likely to come anywhere near that sort of success, and not just because a play with one set and three characters is far easier to produce than one with two dozen actors and multiple locations. Art is a model of economic playwriting–crisp, concise, pointed, witty, and painstakingly structured. Not especially controversial or challenging, it nevertheless sends audiences home with the sense that they’ve been both intellectually stimulated and entertained.

Mee’s structure is about the farthest from Reza’s balanced triangle you can imagine: The Berlin Circle is like a road map constructed by a scissors-happy madman, complete with dead ends, shortcuts, side roads, steep inclines, and sheer drops. Exhilarating and usually rewarding, The Berlin Circle twists and turns for two and a half hours with maddening unpredictability, zipping along, meandering aimlessly, suddenly stopping. The technically proficient 90-minute Art, on the other hand, is ultimately stagnant, demonstrating the difference between an accomplished play and one that’s inspired.

The work in question in Art is an abstract five-foot-by-four-foot painting that looks for all the world like a plain white canvas with perhaps a couple of barely perceptible white streaks across it. To Serge (amusing but a tad too unctuous as played by Michael Gross), who shelled out 200,000 francs for it, the painting is a work of genius that confirms his status as a trendsetter and connoisseur. To his ursine friend Marc (a splendidly bumptious turn by Colin Stinton), it’s a piece of shit, a symbol of Serge’s gullibility and stupidity. The solipsistic Marc–like the proverbial bumpkin who walks into a modern art museum and says, “Hey, I could do that”–cannot comprehend how anyone can appreciate this painting. And to the pathetic Ivan (played with appropriate pathos by Zach Grenier), the painting is neither great art nor a fraud; he’s concerned only with restoring harmony between the two disputants.

Translated by Christopher Hampton from the French, Art’s increasingly contentious debates are filled with spry one-liners, astute critiques of shallow male friendships, and thoughtful considerations of the sometimes absurd and seemingly random ways an artwork gains acceptance. Several moments in the play are laugh-out-loud hilarious. And though at times Reza seems to pander to conservative middlebrow tastes by mocking abstract art, she does acknowledge both its proponents and its critics.

But by the conclusion, what had initially appeared a deceptively simple approach has become merely simple. When Marc admits with unconvincing self-awareness that his disdain for the white painting was in fact based on his sense that the canvas was replacing him in Serge’s life, Reza is not only overreaching, she seems to dismiss the possibility that people might disagree about art intellectually. In a niftily written closing line, Marc grudgingly accepts the painting, but his conversion feels too neat. And changing his opinion to preserve his friendship with Serge is symptomatic of the play’s attitude that art isn’t to be taken seriously in the first place.

For all three characters art seems purposeless, something to stick on a wall, measure in cost, serve one’s vanity–a luxury item. The characters are witty but so narcissistic and petty that their opinions seem unworthy of serious consideration. Indeed, Art seems just the sort of play Marc, Serge, and Ivan would embrace: clearly defined, easy to grasp, it’s unlikely to cause much more than the most muted of debates.

What Art’s bourgeois trio would make of Mee’s sprawling, epic-theater pastiche is anyone’s guess. They’d most likely dismiss it as overly ambitious shit, impossible to pin down to a single tidy interpretation. Then they’d discuss how much it cost Steppenwolf to mount the thing–probably a hell of a lot.

Mee invites visitors to his Web site ( to cut and paste his work, reconfiguring it to their liking. He remarks on his own preference for “plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world.”

It’s an apt description of The Berlin Circle, which tells the frantic picaresque tale of blue-blooded American traveler Pamela Dalrymple and her idealistic young German companion, Dulle Griet, who try to rescue East German leader Erich Honecker’s baby after the collapse of communism. Culling passages from such diverse sources as investment guru Warren Buffett, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, and the age-old Chinese chalk-circle fable, Mee frequently interrupts his narrative with incongruous bursts of song from the Village People and the Beatles. But ironically his psychedelic collage of literature and pop culture, which at times suggests Brecht rewritten for Cirque du Soleil, is most effective in its quietest, most meditative moments, as when Dulle Griet drifts into flurries of poetry. In the play’s key scene, East German playwright-director Heiner Muller, jailed for collaboration with the communists, debates the artist’s role but can’t finally come to any conclusion about whether politically aware artists are contributors to public discourse, agitators for change, or self-deluded supporters of the status quo. But in any case Muller’s dialectical argument about art finding a middle ground between Old World communism and New World capitalism is far more complex and thought-provoking than any subject considered by Art’s three petty Bickersons.

Mee, author of Time to Burn, shares a love of spectacle with his director and frequent collaborator Tina Landau. His play–a set designer’s dream and a budgeting director’s nightmare–rumbles across Germany as Pamela and Dulle Griet dash madly from the stage of Brecht’s famed Berliner Ensemble to the chaos of the Berlin Wall to the back roads outside Dresden to a rope bridge that shudders above the audience as fireworks herald the Wall’s destruction. Thrillingly unpredictable and insanely discursive, The Berlin Circle breathlessly pursues its own berserk internal logic. This is about as far from a static work like Art as you can get. Here art is not a functionless luxury of the upper classes–it’s an essential social component, reflecting a world in turmoil.

Steppenwolf’s staging is studded with excellent and hilarious performances, most notably from a barely recognizable Amy Morton as the prim Pamela, Tim Grimm as a cheeseburger-eating, Cherry Coke-swilling businessman (modeled on Buffett), and Matthew Sussman as the deeply conflicted Muller. The madcap pace Landau sets is reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s 1961 Berlin Wall comedy, One, Two, Three: her staging makes it impossible to distance oneself from Mee’s play. Hurling the viewer into the front seat of a runaway train, it doesn’t let up until the fate of Honecker’s baby is decided–and despite the scene’s slapstick trappings, it’s startlingly moving.

Messy and free, The Berlin Circle suggests the infinite possibilities of art and politics in the new world order–if we can get away from neat explanations and easy answers, the likes of which are provided just across the street.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Art theater still by Dan Rest; The Berlin Circle theater still by Michael Brosilow.