Genius, though admirable from a distance, is frequently insufferable at close range. And artists have a greater reputation than most for dubious behavior, perhaps because the abstract nature of art and corresponding difficulty in measuring its worth tend to mystification of the creative process and exaggeration of its eccentricities. Aberrant behavior among individuals of extraordinary talent or inspiration, however, is usually exceptionally well tolerated–just as a scholar may be permitted moments of absentmindedness, so an artist of brilliant promise is allowed to act like a jerk on occasion. No artist, however, could be as big a jerk as the title character in Dennis McIntyre’s Modigliani, the second biographical drama this season to itemize all of the Postimpressionist’s antisocial habits while giving no insight into the human being.
McIntyre introduces his hero by having him tumble to the street with his trousers around his knees. Modigliani has just wreaked mayhem in a fashionable restaurant–jumping on the tables, scattering china and glassware, snatching food, and finally flashing a general before falling through the front window. In the next scene we meet Maurice Utrillo, who is plotting the murder of his mother’s lover, and Chaim Soutine, who is plotting the theft of a beef carcass–not to eat, though both artists complain of chronic starvation, but to paint. They are both drunk, dirty, and ragged and periodically break into abortive bouts of halfhearted fisticuffs. Modigliani enters, his hand cut and bleeding, and the three of them plot to rob the owner of the bar in which they’re drinking. They fail in this attempt–three against one, and they fail–and run away.
McIntyre has obviously done extensive research into the life of his subject–so much research that he seems to have forgotten that the object of his study is also a character in a play, about whom we must be presumed to know nothing. As impossible as it may be in real life to distinguish between the habitual fuckup who will go on to do great things someday and the habitual fuckup who will self-destruct in a matter of weeks, the playwright must make it inarguably clear to his audience that his protagonist has a value that justifies–or at least mitigates–his annoying behavior. McIntyre, however, pushes only the most facile or ludicrous buttons to elicit our sympathy. Modigliani moons the restaurant patron because “Jews don’t drop their pants to important generals,” as if the gesture were somehow less stupid and childish when executed by a member of an oppressed minority. (To make sure we understand that he is oppressed, McIntyre has Utrillo call Modigliani anti-Semitic names, even though they’re supposed to be the closest of friends.) Modigliani rapes his mistress because he wants her to bear his child, as if forced impregnation were any less cruel and selfish for being motivated by paternal intentions. By the time Modigliani finally meets with a potentially helpful art dealer and proceeds to bluff, beg, brag, name-drop, and lie his way through the interview–in short, screw it up seven ways from Sunday–we are neither interested nor surprised. We’ve seen this sad sack do virtually everything under the sun to bring misfortune on himself. Equally foolish are Soutine, who hasn’t the brains to eat the food he steals, and Utrillo, who lacerates his hands trying to lap up wine from a broken bottle.
Leonard Robinson’s direction, which could have lent some small amount of dignity to McIntyre’s ham-handed portrait of the artist as self-destructive numbnut, only delivers the play its coup de grace. When Modigliani is showing his paintings to Cheron, the art dealer, Robinson places a blank canvas at one side of the stage and projects slides onto it–but the slides are not of Modigliani’s actual paintings. Modigliani would sometimes use his fellow artists as models and alter their features to represent personalities very different from their own. But the sight we’re offered of a scrawny, unshaven Utrillo dressed in schoolgirl’s bonnet and pinafore is not only ludicrous but confusing–we have been led to think that what we’re seeing projected on the blank canvas are paintings Cheron is actually reviewing. And if that’s so, we can only conclude that Modigliani was not only an asshole but a no-talent asshole, well deserving of his early and obscure death.
The list of non sequiturs goes on and on. Modigliani claims to love his painting so much that he throws away his chance at fame in umbrage at what he feels is an unfair price and criticism; but he carries his precious canvases crumpled up in one hand like soiled handkerchiefs. He and Utrillo torch these same precious works, for which they claim to have sacrificed their lives, at the entrance to the Louvre–an act of frustration no less irrational for being still common among romantic artists to this day, particularly those who drink excessively. “I hate painting! I’ll always hate it!” shouts Utrillo–but why then, we ask ourselves, do so many Utrillo paintings now hang in museums all over the world? Why, in fact, do any paintings exist at all by these losers who have no discernible reason to live beyond the first intermission?
The actors in Mary-Arrchie’s production appear to be as confused as the audience, but they steamroll through their hyperemotional speeches and adagio choreography with kamikaze concentration. Though Duane Sharp labors mightily to suggest some sympathetic qualities in his Modigliani, he can’t overcome the impression created by McIntyre and Robinson. Only Richard Cotovsky, as the weary but dedicated Leopold Zborowski, manages to convey a hint of what makes his character tick. The minimalist set seems lost on the stripped-bare stage, and the costumes are as much 1991 Wicker Park as they are 1916 Montparnasse.
In recent years a spate of young playwrights have seemed bent on putting their own ideologies into the mouths of historical personages, possibly to debunk our veneration of the past or to sandbag their own opinions. McIntyre, diligently grinding his own ambiguous ax, paints a gloomy fantasy of sociopathic mischief without ever indicating how these bad boys went on to make good, or why we should care.