‘The Old Masters’ at Washington Stage Guild by Leslie Weisman

We Washingtonians take pride in accomplishment, and in being duly recognized for it. And strongly dislike having our expertise challenged—particularly, publicly. Fortunately, most of us don’t have our reputations riding on being right. Or millions of dollars. Not to mention 400-year-old legacies.

But then, most of us do not spend our days in Italian villas, sipping liqueurs of rare vintage as we dispute the provenance of Renaissance paintings. Then again, we also do not hear the ominous crunch of military jackboots, growing terrifyingly and inexorably nearer with each passing day.

Thomasin Savaiano (Nicky and Jewell Robinson (Mary). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Thomasin Savaiano (Nicky and Jewell Robinson (Mary). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Now, now. Relax: that’s still in the future, if it reaches us at all. Settling into our seats, we see before us Scenic Designer Carl F. Gudenius’ harmoniously appointed veranda, elegant yet understated, its concave walls a light apricot, a latticed walnut-and-glass-paned double door with brass knobs flanked on either side by four carefully trimmed green boxwood shrubs, pleasantly raked and pleasingly symmetrical. All is trimmed in grey, complementing the twin marbled benches at right and left; two low, white marble side tables provide a delicately striking contrast. With a row of small overhead spots along the batten illumining the delicate filagree of shadowed leaves and branches and projecting them upon the proscenium wall, the artistic effect is complete.

That peaceful perfection is, however, deceptive, and as such, a fitting incarnation of the “rightness”—the costly (in both senses) expertise—at the heart of The Old Masters. One that, valuing its infallibility—its “perfection”—refuses to concede the possibility of error, and causes a great, and perhaps irreparable rift between two men who have known each other, working with and against each other, for 30 years; that is to say, situationally amiable colleague-competitors. It is an inflexibility that playwright Simon Gray suggests is at the heart of the business, and—at the time we are now in—the country, and soon the continent, in which our story unfolds.

It is 1937, a year after the signing of the Berlin-Rome Axis. We are at “I Tatti,” a villa near Florence, Italy, home to Bernard Berenson, or “BB” (David Bryan Jackson), the American art connoisseur whose word on provenance and authenticity has come to be seen as definitive: in practical terms, the difference between owning—and exhibiting—a masterpiece, or a … copy. (Doesn’t the shiver just course through your veins?)

The Old Masters takes us into a world that seems far removed from our own lives, but which, by virtue of the issues it raises and aided by a highly skilled cast and crew helmed by Director Laura F. Giannarelli, a Stage Guild founding member who has regularly appeared on both sides of the footlights, often succeeds in drawing us into it.  Giannarelli manages to mine much of the ‘gold’ from the script it and her actors, making for a generally absorbing nearly three hours.

As DC theatergoers have come to expect from Washington Stage Guild, the costumes, here by Sigríđur (Sigrid) Jóhannesdóttir, are equal to the task, carrying through the aesthetic of the sets while also suggesting the character of their wearers.

Act I sets the scene, from BB’s light grey suit, its burgundy bow tie finely striped in grey; to his wife Mary’s (Jewell Robinson) businesslike tan shirtwaist with collar and buttons in sensible brown; to assistant Nicky’s (Thomasin Savaiano) brown dress brightly patterned with turquoise and white figures. In effect, a sartorial expression of the dynamic among the three, clearer and more direct than the words they do not (yet) speak.

BB seems affectionately solicitous of Mary, whom we have just watched make her way to the chair with difficulty and in evident pain, standing her cane beside it. And causing tiny alarm bells to go off in the playgoer’s mind when he gently insists, with a suspiciously theatrical smile, that she stand and walk the length of the veranda without it. Informed that she has invited her daughter and young grandson to spend some time there, he coldly responds that he and Nicky will be away when they arrive.

But he has his match in Mary. Robinson is excellent as Mary and glares at him, speaking deliberately and slowly, her eyes narrowed with steely determination, delivering words against which she and he both know there is no argument: “This is my house.” Jackson tosses off BB’s response with a Shavian nonchalance, head jerked slightly up and back, eyes drily half-lidded—perhaps a tip of the hat, conscious or not, to Stage Guild’s long-established identification with the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

Indeed, it is her house. But it is a house Mary feels guilty for living in, in effect “abandoning” her children by moving to Italy to be with BB. She speaks glowingly of Joe, who “was always there to help us.” In plays and days of yore, a line like that would have meant: cue Joe. (After all: Joe who?) Here, though: no. Cue Joe’s associate, Fowles, who’s come to test the waters for his boss on a matter of extreme delicacy—and gargantuan financial, artistic, historical, and reputational consequence.

Fowles is a thoroughly decent fellow (played winningly by Steven Carpenter) who tells Nicky how ashamed he is for downplaying BB’s “Jewishness”—although a convert to Christianity at age 20, Berenson was born to Jewish parents in Lithuania—to the fascist Italian authorities, in order to get the picture past them. (Picture? What picture? Clearly, our playwright is holding some cards close to the chest.)

Fittingly, Nicky draws Fowles aside—her counterpart, after all—to scope out his proposal. As the two of them talk, we are struck by how knowledgeable Mary is about both art and BB’s business affairs; until now, we may have regarded as an assistant “with benefits,” but her words now reflect a cool acumen and a brisk, no-nonsense authority. She asks him, with knowledge and specificity, what “Joe” wants. Savaiano’s got this covered, making the difficult dialogue sound almost natural.

Conrad Feininger (Sir Joseph Duveen) and David Bryan Jackson (Bernard Berenson [BB]). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Conrad Feininger (Sir Joseph Duveen) and David Bryan Jackson (Bernard Berenson [BB]). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Oh, and “Joe”? That would be Sir Joseph Duveen, described in Artistic Director Bill Largess’s program notes as “one of the most influential dealers the art world has known”—and by Wikipedia, as one of the shrewdest.

Fowles unveils for Nicky a “copy” of the painting that has been at the center of the most profound, and potentially consequential, attribution disagreement ever to arise between BB and Duveen: The Adoration of the Shepherds.  Berenson has attributed it to Titian, making it impossible for Duveen to sell it to the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist Paul Mellon, who will buy it only if it’s a (much rarer) Giorgiano. Nicky regards it reflexively with scorn—a case, perhaps, of we see what we are told we will see, if we trust the messenger—then gives it another look. Is is a copy? Or is it . . . the real deal? By the time the two of them are finished with their back-and-forth analysis, disagreement, reconsideration, what-ifs and but-maybes, we are back where we started. Or are we?

Even the invincible Berenson allows for the possibility of (personal) fallibility. Turning suddenly mellow—fueled at least in part, we suspect, by the glass he hasn’t neglected (or neglected to refill) since the play began—BB confesses to Fowler that he “made a mistake” in a previous authentication of a painting purchased by Mellon, which cost Joe dearly, and agrees to return his percentage of the fee.

We are now in the villa’s library. Two walnut bookcases visually flank the double doors; a grey brocade satin settee is at stage right, a table of dark wood, stage left; two large, richly colored rectangular pillows complete the look of simple elegance. It is evening, as the mood and Marianne Meadows’ masterly lighting suggest. But it is BB’s and Nicky’s attire that causes a sharp intake of breath.

Nicky is in a long black velvet, plunging v-neckline sleeveless gown with glittering rhinestone panel; BB, in a white dinner jacket, black bow tie, black slacks and crisp white black-buttoned dress shirt. Swirling that ever-present glass, he confides that he feels he has accomplished nothing, compared to Joe. Cue . . . ? Yes. This time: It is Joe.

In an “Author’s introduction,” Simon Gray recounts how he conceived of

“ . . . the moment [in the play] I’d have to get down to my dramatic muttons, with the entrance of Duveen. This comes just after Berenson has had a rather complicated domestic evening, full of love, anger, apprehension and sex, and is now alone in his study, making peace with himself, ready for a final, restful spot of work. He adjusts his lamp, picks up a folder, the door bursts open, the detested Duveen enters, Berenson looks at him aghast, Duveen opens his arms to embrace him – I simply couldn’t get myself past Duveen frozen with his outstretched arms, Berenson frozen aghast. I did the approach again and again, first changing the closing exchanges between Berenson and Nicky, then changing Berenson’s actions in his study, finally providing Duveen with offstage footsteps and coughs, hoping that eventually I’d just find myself writing him into the room and the opening lines of the conversation, their last conversation together, the heart of [the] play. I stopped, waited for a week or so, started, stopped, waited, started, stopped, waited, started, stopped – one night very late, or one morning very early, with my eyes closed, so to speak, I leapt.”

As would Conrad Feininger’s Joe Duveen and Jackson’s BB, whose embrace quickly turns to recrimination as a complicated bit of competition between the two men involving Kenneth Clark, Director of the (British) National Gallery, mars their reconciliation. The agreement they do reach, however, is marred by a lack of integrity, an irony both men bitterly appreciate, given that its alleged purpose is to ensure it.

Feininger is terrific as Duveen regales BB with tales of how “Mr. Five and Dime”—millionaire Samuel Kress, of ten-cent-store fame—engages in complex negotiations to get discounts from street-cart vendors for “the deal of a lifetime,” then resells what he buys “at a 70% profit”—netting the millionaire (who in today’s dollars would be a billionaire) a profit of $378. Feininger’s Duveen fairly explodes with theatrical contempt for Kress’s alleged lack of taste and appreciation for great art, his right hand slicing maniacally up and down like the meat cleaver of a deranged butcher.

Indeed, the shadow of mortality hangs over this play—two of its characters are dying; the world is on the precipice of a continental conflagration that, by its end, will annihilate between sixty and eighty-five million men, women, and children. None of them here can know it, but some of them may sense it. Yet they are preoccupied, at times arguably even obsessed, with something that preceded their existence by more than four centuries, and could well exceed it by as many.

Gray poses for us here a conundrum: How can highly intelligent, cultivated people surrounded by barbarity and insanity essentially ignore it—BB refers to “Il Duce” Mussolini as “The Duck”—allow a petty preoccupation with such things as scholarly attribution and personal reputation, which are but footnotes to the record of human existence, absorb so much of their time and energy?

Surely they know that it is the work itself—regardless of who painted it—that, in the end, will testify to the immortality of the human spirit—”The Old Masters,” who will remain.

Jewell Robinson (Mary), Thomasin Savaiano (Nicky), and David Bryan Jackson (Bernard Berenson (BB). Photo by C. stanley Photography.
Jewell Robinson (Mary), Thomasin Savaiano (Nicky), and David Bryan Jackson (Bernard Berenson (BB). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Speaking of which: The Adoration of the Shepherds can be viewed at the National Gallery of Art, where has been in residence since 1939.

Running Time:  Two hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Old Masters plays through January 26, 2014 at Washington Stage Guild performing at The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.



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