Sam Waterston and Brian Murray in The Old Masters
(© T Charles Erickson)
Sam Waterston and Brian Murray in The Old Masters
(© T Charles Erickson)
In Simon Gray's compelling play, The Old Masters, now being presented at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, world-famous classical-art authenticator Bernard Berenson (Sam Waterston) plays reluctant host to estranged business collaborator Joseph Duveen (Brian Murray), who's dropped in on a little matter of attribution.

The ensuing power play involves which man will be dominant in their quest -- Duveen's need to tell a potential buyer that he's got a Giorgione to sell or Berenson's determination not to compromise his art-appraiser's conviction that the canvas is a less valuable Titian -- and the resulting confrontation is a high-toned merry-go-round which Michael Rudman has directed for everything it's worth.

As Berenson, Waterston is as far as possible here from Jack McCoy, the attorney he played on Law & Order. He depicts a man reaching seniority with a distinct sense of his reputation and a desire to move with the required dignified bearing. Waterston's gait, the thought he gives before exploding with rage at being contradicted, and the mannerly apologies that follow are all spot-on. He finds a way to scrutinize paintings -- especially the "Adoration of the Magi" in question -- that completely satisfies the script's description of Berenson's acumen.

Murray -- looking portly in a double-breasted suit and carrying an attache case large enough to hold a painting -- comes across instantly as someone with an ulterior motive, and who knows revealing it takes soft-soaping he's capable of carrying out. Exuding contrition for past wrongs, he's a man who throws his arms in the air and leaps for joy when he thinks he's gotten his way and erupts with muted fury when he realizes he hasn't and won't.

Although the rarefied Berenson-Duveen contretemps is the crux of The Old Masters, the play's other focus is on Berenson's private live, as he shares an Italian villa (beautifully designed by Alexander Dodge) with his ailing wife Mary (Shirley Knight) and savvy secretary-mistress Nicky Mariano (Heidi Scheck). As the work begins, it looks as if Gray will be concentrating on the Berenson menage a trois, and after Duveen's arrival, there's a slight sense that two separate plays are unfolding.

Nevertheless, the romantic scenario not only gives Gray the opportunity to illustrate the grace and friction endemic to such a prickly domestic arrangement, but it also affords Knight the chance to show she's no slouch in the acting department either. Her Mary is a woman ready to declare love for a husband whom she also resents and find a balance in that internal emotional tug-of-war.

Schreck is appealing as the younger woman entirely content to share her man, while Rufus Collins, as Duveen's sensitive and understanding assistant, brings additional class and style to proceedings which are nothing if not thoroughly and consistently stylish.