Photo Credit:Michael Brosilow
Photo Credit:
Michael Brosilow
In Lisa Dillman's latest dramatic effort, Detail of a Larger Work, an attempted meditation on mortality and the artistic process gets reduced to an erratic sketch of lives that never pointedly intersect. Prop Theater is presenting the piece as part of its New Play 2000 festival in association with Steppenwolf Theatre's New Plays Initiative at Steppenwolf's raw Garage space.

It's quite surprising that two respected theatrical institutions, as well as visionary director Robin Stanton, would attach their names to a play barely at a first-draft level. As it stands, Detail of a Larger Work is a string of hackneyed and stereotypical ideas that veer off into several pointless directions. Even a traditionally strong cast struggles with the flat dialogue and laughably-contrived plot twists. Astute editing would not solve the problem. Dillman essentially needs to restructure and refocus the entire play and determine not only whose story is being told but also what kinds of statements she wants to make about art, aging, and the AIDS crisis.

The bulk of the action takes place at the San Miguel de Allende, Mexico home of ailing elderly American painter Ed Grand and his wife, Vanessa. Out of the blue, the ex-pat couple is visited by a young, opportunistic photographer, Zach, and his shallow girlfriend, Chloe. Their connection is so vaguely established that it's incomprehensible that Vanessa would give this sinister pair free reign of the house and allow Zach (an obviously repulsive character) to do a photographic study of their sad lives.

The link is Duane, the Grand's gay friend who has recently died of AIDS and the fact that Zach completed an "award-winning" photo series of Duane's rapidly failing health and death. Yet we never really get to know Duane beyond Vanessa's memories of their friend's penchant for foreign boyfriends and young boys. Duane appears to Ed in a hallucination after the cranky, emphysema-racked painter falls and hits his head in one of the play's more nonsensical scenes. He appears again as a goofy Texas tourist whom Ed mistakes for his now-deceased friend.

What seems to be the real story, however--Ed's need to paint one more masterpiece before he dies--does not become clear until the end. Prior to that, one becomes privy to a lot of extraneous details about Vanessa's first husband, Zach and Chloe's crumbling relationship, and Zach's callous approach to his art, none of which tell a compelling or purposeful story.

Further, playwright Dillman, from the get-go, paints Zach as a self-interested cad whose profession is either one that manipulates images or one that truly captures a person's soul--neither of which are earth shattering ideas. Zach is an unappealing, one-dimensional villain who uses people's faces and lives for his own self-glorification: Instead of helping Ed when the artist hits his head, Zach clicks away at his subject's misery in true paparazzi fashion.

Photo Credit:Michael Brosilow
Photo Credit:
Michael Brosilow
Chloe, who has some moments of sympathetic depth, is written in as the token girlfriend whose relationship with Zach, naturally, has no bearing on the story. Ed is written as a doddering old fool whose hearing loss inspires the playwright's frequently cheap non-sequitur humor. Vanessa, although a bit flighty, is the only character who truly re-evaluates her life over the course of the play. Duane is merely a promiscuous, fashion-conscious gay cliche. Also disturbing is Dillman's tendency to have her gringo characters toss in offensive remarks about Mexicans. Frustrated talk of the Grand's maid, Lucila--who never arrives to answer the door or to serve the drinks--is entirely pointless. If Dillman felt the need to include Lucila in so many conversations, why didn't she just make her another character?

As Ed, all Maury Cooper can do is wander around in a state of irascible distraction. At one point, he growls about his uncomfortable bed--the mattress is "as thin as lunchmeat" and the pillows feel like they are "stuffed with dead puppies." (Dillman might want to sharpen her descriptive skills.) Mary Ann Thebus masters projecting Vanessa's anguish as hidden behind a cheery façade, yet her character also offers no provocative dimensions. Given the writing, Joe Forbrich's Zach cannot help but to be stilted and dishonest and Katherine Martinez Ripley cannot transcend sensual Chloe's forced empathy. Ron Wells as the ghostly Duane floats across the stage in a state of angelic oblivion.

Stanton's direction is restricted by the play's static setting--a patio located off-center. Ed's studio, on the opposite end of the stage, is barely utilized--creating an off-kilter feel to the staging. A large orange-tinted screen, later used for Stephanie Howard's effective projections of Zach's "Living End" series on Duane, draws the audience's focus to centerstage, where no action occurs. Apart from the blue-and-white tile bar, Lori Fong's scenic design is uninspired, and Joanne Witzkowski's tacky printed costumes (especially for the outlandish Grands) reinforce the play's cartoonish tone.