Karen Rodriguez (Madeline), Francis Guinan (Henry), and Ty Olwin (Dodger) in The Rembrandt, directed by Hallie Gordon, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Karen Rodriguez (Madeline), Francis Guinan (Henry), and Ty Olwin (Dodger) in The Rembrandt, directed by Hallie Gordon, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Henry (Francis Guinan) is a chipper man. He's a security guard at a museum, but he acts more like a docent, sharing nuggets of trivia and wisdom with his trainee, Dodger (Ty Olwin), and Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), a young copyist taking an art class. In his younger years, we learn, Henry was an art professor. Now he is semiretired, and comes home each day to his dying partner, Simon (John Mahoney), a poet who is withering away from metastatic cancer. Henry's life — and Simon's death — are on exhibition in Jessica Dickey's The Rembrandt, now making its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Though Henry tries to distract himself with jokes and busywork, watching Simon die is tearing him up. His grief has left him in a state to do something drastic — like actually listen to the anarchistic Dodger when he urges Henry to break protocol and physically touch his favorite painting in the museum, Rembrandt's Aristotle With a Bust of Homer.

That touch turns out to be transportive. The next scene takes place in Rembrandt's Amsterdam studio, where the artist himself (Guinan) preps a canvas, aided by his wife Henny (Rodriguez) and his son Titus (Olwin, who reads as neither an adult nor a child). This Rembrandt is a boorish, maudlin drunk, frustrated by the indignity of working on commission. When young Titus asks if he can touch his father's canvas before he begins work on the piece, the play moves back in time once again to the 8th century B.C., at which point, the epic poet Homer (Mahoney) appears and delivers an extended monologue to the audience. Homer begins with small talk and grouses about petty topical disputes before marveling at length about the vastness of death.

Death is as much the subject of The Rembrandt as Henry, Homer, or Rembrandt van Rijn. Dickey's play is almost punishingly morbid. Dying is never far from the characters' minds. Rembrandt is still mourning his first wife while presaging the death of his second. Homer wonders how he'll die and what he'll see when he does. Madeline began her art classes to fill the time that used to be occupied by caring for her late grandmother. And Henry, for all his counterfeit courage, isn't ready to let go of the man he has loved for decades.

It is only in the play's final scene, when Henry comes home to Simon, that all of the relentless morbidity hits home. Dickey and director Hallie Gordon have created a thoughtful but overstuffed artwork, one that is rich and vibrant but burdened with too many motifs. The scene with Rembrandt is particularly messy. The talented Olwin plays young Titus somewhere unclearly between childhood and adulthood, and the raunchy comedy never quite hits its mark. Ann G. Wrightson's lights and Regina Garcia's set both make excellent thematic use of color, pulling from Rembrandt's signature palette of warm, dark colors as the play shifts between a pristine museum, a chaotic Amsterdam studio, and a beautifully lived-in contemporary dining room.

With lesser performers, The Rembrandt could be dreary and unsatisfying, but when Guinan and Mahoney come together in the end, the play becomes devastatingly real, and any early missteps are forgiven. With a word and a look, these two master actors convey a lifetime together. When Henry furtively whispers "don't die," it has more weight than any lengthy Homeric musings on the mysteries of the great beyond.