Francis Guinan and Ty Olwin Credit: Michael Brosilow

Well, this is peculiar. If I remember correctly, Steppenwolf Theatre spent a significant part of last season trying to poke its mostly white, mostly aging, mostly bourgeois audience base in the eye with an array of well-sharpened sticks. Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over delivered a blow against a pale-skinned power structure designed to make life nasty, brutish, and short for urban black men. Taylor Mac’s Hir portrayed the boom-generation American male as a beast rendered harmless only as long as he’s kept in a drug-induced stupor. And Young Jean Lee played patrons into her Straight White Men with a hip-hop preshow cranked to PTSD-triggering decibel levels before turning us over to a pair of guides who did their condescending best to strip away our smug sense of privilege.

But that was then, this, apparently, is now, and here we are again, sitting in the very theater where Lee tried to school us, watching as an aging, white, amiably pedantic art museum guard named Henry—the central figure in Jessica Dickey‘s The Rembrandt—explains about the second of three types of museum patrons. “Then there are the old white-haired ladies (and their dutiful husbands) who have been coming to the museum for years,” he says. “You know who I mean—this brave, blessed generation of men and women who go to the theatre, who buy memberships, who understand what it means to participate in the cultural institutions of our country—and who are frankly keeping those institutions alive. And who themselves will soon die, leaving the rest of us to CATCH ON.”

What? Can the targets of the summer have become the heroes of the fall? Afforded a moment of clemency for their (very real) race, class, and gender crimes? Even valorized for their sense of duty to the arts? The opening night audience seemed to think so. They gave Henry’s speech an appreciative, self-congratulatory roar.

Truly, the whole 90-minute show comes across as an olive branch to the folks Henry’s talking about, the sort who bravely endured the theatrical self-criticism sessions of Steppenwolf’s last few months. The Rembrandt is a sweet, unchallenging contrivance that flirts ever so gently with transgression but ultimately leaves no doubt that its essentially complacent heart belongs to the Western canon.

Though it goes unnamed in the play, the institution Henry (Francis Guinan) helps guard must be New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, because that’s where you’ll find the Rembrandt painting he admires above all others, Aristotle With a Bust of Homer. He communes with it when he’s alone in its presence, rhapsodizes over it to Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), a young woman copying it for a class, and Dodger (Ty Olwin), a punky street artist having his first day on staff. Normally punctilious—not to say reverential—on the job, Henry finds himself distracted by a crisis at home: his longtime domestic partner, a poet named Simon (John Mahoney), is dying of cancer. Grief over that imminent loss makes him reckless enough to give in when rebellious Dodger pushes him and Madeline to touch the Rembrandt. With their actual fingers.

At which point The Rembrandt suddenly starts looking like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Putting their hands to the old oiled surface seems to open a psychic portal to Rembrandt’s studio sometime during the 1650s, where we meet not only the Dutch master himself (Guinan again) but his approximately ten-year-old son Titus (Olwin again) and Rembrandt’s servant-turned-lover Hendrickje, aka Henny (Rodriguez again).
Not much happens to justify this wrinkle in time. The Rembrandt Dickey limns for us is earthy, raunchy, alcoholic, self-doubting, yet dedicated to the point of distraction—much as famous artists often are in works where it’s supposed to come as a surprise to us that they were human at all. Homer (Mahoney again) turns out to be a similarly regular guy when we meet him a little later on.

And that’s the thing about The Rembrandt. It rehashes conventional notions in superficial, occasionally clunky ways, never seriously questioning any of them. Artists are people. Painting is illusion, yet art can bridge eras. Love transcends death. Each being is unique. Only connect. And so on and so forth. All of it true, most of it posed as a series of banalities.

The only real gift to the audience is the cast—especially Guinan (who’s scheduled to be replaced by Joe Dempsey starting October 24) and Mahoney. In Hallie Gordon’s staging, Mahoney radiates the beauty of triumphant old age; Guinan vindicates many things with the way his Henry tells Simon, “Don’t die.”  v