Mystery, Murder, Modern Art

Posted: December 01, 1989

NEW YORK — In three short scenes of Artist Descending a Staircase, Tom Stoppard demolishes the pretensions of modern art with fine dispatch. But the rest of his freaky little play is a letdown. It opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater.

Adapting his title from that of Marcel Duchamp's revolutionary nude, Stoppard focuses on the lives of three artists who have taken part in all the fads of the 20th century. They are seen in their old age, played by one set of actors, and in their romantic youth, portrayed by three others.

The play begins as a murder mystery. One of the artists has died in a fall down the stairs; the smashed stair railing suggests that he was pushed. His last words, "Oh, there you are," have been caught on a tape.

Each of the surviving cronies accuses the other.

The constitutionally unconventional Stoppard went "straight" with his hit romantic comedy, The Real Thing, but he is in his characteristic trickster mode here. The play marches backward in time from 1972 to 1914, then shifts into forward and picks up each scene where it left off. The playwright bids adieu with the dumbest surprise ending in the checkered history of surprise endings.

Written for radio performance, the eleven scenes take only 85 minutes. There's no time for an intermission. Still, the play is too long by about an hour.

In their salad days, the three artists fall in love with the same young woman. She has seen one of them before, but since then has gone blind, so when she falls in love, it is not absolutely certain that she's in love with the one she is thinking of. What is certain is that she takes the play into tragedy, and it never recovers its wits.

The pleasure the production offers is great, if short-lived. The wily Paxton Whitehead has had few better moments than the one in which he stirs his tea with a Venus made of sugar. It is called "edible art."

Harold Gould is a wonderfully absurd figure as he talks of the "detritus of audible sound," which he captures on his tape loops. As the doomed member of this goofy cenacle, John McMartin stands heroically at his easel, painting something recognizable and defending traditional art against the heresies of the 20th century.

"Imagination with skill is talent," he says. "Imagination without skill is modern art." The artist, he argues, is honored because he can do things that ordinary people can't.

The conversation is dotted with confused references to Picabia and Picasso, to Edith Sitwell and Max Ernst and, in one reprehensible gag, to Tristan Tzara as "Tarzan."

The artists as young men are portrayed by Michael Cumpsty, Jim Fyfe and Michael Winther. Stephanie Roth is the blind object of their desire. They all could have strayed into the theater from another play.

The young British director Tim Luscombe has staged the work with zest, emphasizing its discontinuity through Tharon Musser's jagged lighting effects that bridge the scenes. Designer Tony Straiges contrasts the old men's cluttered attic studio with a barren apartment in which the young artists are in love.

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