Bernard Berenson, the famous art connoisseur, made his name and reputation through a seemingly unfailing fidelity to his own cognizance of what constitutes the characteristic style of a master; his attributions made the fortune of the dealers and collectors who sold and owned the works he authenticated, or, likewise, could undermine a buyer or seller who tried to pass off as a masterpiece what was in fact an apprentice work. Simon Gray’s The Old Masters, now playing at the Long Wharf Theater, is set at a time when Berenson’s (Sam Waterston) expertise is not commanding the prices it had formerly; not only that, his beloved Italy, where he and his wife reside, is now being run by “the Duck” (aka Il Duce), and, not only that, the big buyers in the art world are no longer men who aim to acquire taste as well as prestige–such as Mellon or Frick—but rather men whose fortunes are made by, for instance, a string of five and dime stores. In other words, the old verities are no longer quite so veracious, and perhaps even Berenson’s imprimatur can be had for the right price.
At least that’s what art dealer Joe Duveen (Brian Murray) hopes. He wants to sell Mellon a Giorgione; unfortunately, Berenson insists the painting is an early Titian, a breakthrough in which the pupil comes close to the master, but not quite getting there. The sparring between these two old masters, B.B. and Joe—as the latter tries to convince the former to concede that he might be mistaken—is the main dramatic substance of the play, the only scene where Gray’s mastery of his own medium is in evidence. Early on, the proceedings are much slimmer, consisting of busywork aimed at dramatizing the ménage à trois of the Berenson home. B.B.’s ailing but forceful and likeable wife Mary (Shirley Knight) suffers her husband’s amours with his private secretary, Nicky Mariano (Heidi Schreck), who must also suffer his amours with his Swedish masseuse, apparently, but all these references to B.B.’s erotic interests seem to be present primarily for the sake of running time and because Gray has obviously based much of this material on Mariano’s memoir.
The scenes between B.B. and the women add, arguably, a grasp of the great man’s character through knowledge of his domestic dealings, but Waterston’s truculence undermines any amorous interest. And, though Schreck is gamely graceful and Knight ruefully doting in their attitude to the man in their lives, Waterston’s irritable, blustering B.B. simply shines brightest with a male foil. And that’s what Murray provides with delightful panache. With a twinkle in his eye, a leonine head of hair, and an elegant moustache, his Duveen, ailing and driven, uses all his powers of persuasion, and the two men evince all the fascination of old counterparts perilously close to becoming enemies.
The sets are sumptuous, as befits a man of consummate taste, creating a sense of the style beyond means of the Villa I Tatti. The pacing is too slow in the early going and the final scene seems a largely extraneous afterword. In between, the best scenes are Waterston and Murray, then Waterston, Murray and Knight—her genuine affection for Joe as well as her sense of their need for his financial benefits add poignancy to the fact that the old friends cannot see eye to eye.
And it’s B.B.’s faith in his eye—not in art per se, nor in love, nor in loyalty—that is the driving force of the play because it’s what makes B. B. who he is, a factor of pride and authority that he can’t surrender without losing, no matter the financial gain. But what the play ultimately dramatizes is how untenable are claims for art in an absolute sense. What Gray wants to give us, it seems, is grounds for seeing the status of the art object, the very aspect that makes art Art, as inevitably up for grabs, nothing more than a gentleman’s agreement, quaintly doomed if gentlemen no longer call the shots with their accustomed integrity.
The Old Masters, by Simon Gray; directed by Michael Rudman
Long Wharf Theatre, January 19-February 13, 2011