Donald Sutherland and Julianna Marguliesin Ten Unknowns(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Donald Sutherland and Julianna Margulies
in Ten Unknowns
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Since the advent of conceptual art--and in truth, long before the second half of the 20th century--the actual creator of an individual work of art has frequently been in dispute. For instance: Did Peter Paul Rubens paint everything on his canvases, or were squadrons of apprentices at work on landscape details and drapery? (There isn't much argument about the answer to that one.) More recently, can Sol Lewitt be assumed to have executed his murals, or did he merely come up with a plan that others carried out? (Here again, the answer is common knowledge.)

Responsibility for a work of art is Jon Robin Baitz's subject--or one of his subjects--in the touching and tough Ten Unknowns, currently lifting the Lincoln Center new-play season several notches. The artworks in dispute are those supposedly done by Malcolm Raphelson (Donald Sutherland), an expatriate American living in South Mexico (probably somewhere in Oaxaca), the state where Baitz's Three Hotels is set and where the playwright himself has often vacationed.

Now that it's 1992, Raphelson has lived away for 28 years, having tired of the New York gallery and museum scene after his struggle to make headway as a representational artist in a climate hospitable only to abstract expressionists. He had gathered little recognition since 1949, when he was included in a group show that carried the title "Ten Unknowns"--and after which the Robert Motherwells and Helen Frankenthalers of the world went on to bigger and better things, while those who didn't buy into the new practice fell by the wayside.

Suddenly, however, there's a flurry of interest in Raphelson's work. This is why his dealer, a scheming and determined South African called Trevor Fabricant (Denis O'Hare), has arrived in the painter's barn-sized studio to persuade the aging fellow to agree to a one-man show, a Manhattan retrospective. Raphelson resists the idea and won't listen either to Fabricant or to Judd Burgess (Justin Kirk), an aspiring painter and troubled rich kid who's been toiling as an atelier assistant for some months. It's only with the arrival of Julia Bryant (Julianna Margulies), a San Francisco biologist on a field study, that Raphelson acquiesces to Fabricant's importunings, and even then he agrees to give Fabricant only one painting to sell. The catch is, the piece must be one that the art-ignorant Bryant picks out.

When Bryant chooses the only candidate for sale that she's actually been shown--a depiction of the lake where she's trying to track an endangered species of small frogs--the spiteful Raphelson changes his mind. But we learn shortly afterward that there's more on the artist's mind than he reveals. What's plaguing him is painter's block, the revelation of which gives Baitz his effective first-act blackout and a running start into the second act. That's when Raphelson, who drinks too much, and Sturgess, who drugs too much, attempt to face their interdependence. Both realize that, with Bryant as in-house goad, neither of them can claim full credit for what they've been producing so prolifically. Correct authorship, as Baitz wants his title to convey, is unknown.

To divulge the resolution of their conflict, or even whether or not it gets resolved, would undermine the pleasure of watching Baitz's superficially simple, subtextually profound plot unfold. What can be said is that Ten Unknowns represents a significant departure for Baitz, although not at first glance. As in The Substance of Fire, Three Hotels, and A Fair Country, a charismatic man whose arrogance and obstinacy corrode him is at the center of the play's universe. He's a man whose intellectual superiority and rhetorical skills give him an edge (pun intended), but whose glibness and manipulation serve as something to hide his failings behind.

Baitz's protagonists have been irredeemably corrupt until this new work; they're emblems of civilized humanity's being eaten alive from within. The difference between Raphelson and his predecessors in the Baitz canon is that he's not unsalvageable, he's simply frightened. And the psychological wrestling match he falls into with Sturgess, whom he admires, has been provoked by an unconscious need to exorcise his/their demons as well as to play out some necessary, surrogate Oedipal imbroglio. As Raphelson and Sturgess engage each other, Baitz implicitly and wisely acknowledges that forgiveness and hope are real possibilities.

When this new strain is added to the strengths Baitz has exhibited since his first play, The Film Society, the result is magnetic. He's always had a talent for getting smart people into quick-witted and informative chats, and there are more of those here. Raphelson is full of information about the artistic life. At one point, he tells a story that maybe is true--the audience surely longs for it to be!--about Willem de Kooning giving Robert Rauschenberg a drawing that Rauschenberg then proceeds to erase. Raphelson describes this as an example of Rauschenberg "killing Papa" and, with that remark, obliquely tips his worry about him and Sturgess.

Baitz fills his script with challenging sallies. Bryant, worried about the success of her trip, explains her interest in frogs: They've lived on the planet since the Jurassic age, she notes, and their dying out now may have a meaning that too many people are choosing to ignore. Along with these kinds of discourses, Baitz packs other delights into the piece as if he were dropping assorted chocolates into a gift box. When Bryant admits feeling wired, Sturgess suggests Ritalin--"I grew up on that," he says. Later he gives a pithy speech about the silliness that passes for learning at art schools today: "You did not have to know how to draw," he laments. (Yes, the art world is mocked here--but not unsubtly, as it is in Yasmina Reza's Art.) The sly dramatist even slips a joke into Trevor Fabricant's name, since the nervous merchant (and Sturgess' ex-boyfriend) fabricates nothing concrete, nothing that makes any artistic or scientific contribution, as the others do. What he fabricates is only the occasional flight of art-dealer fancy.

Julianna Marguliesin Ten Unknowns(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Julianna Margulies
in Ten Unknowns
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Of the innumerable brush strokes Baitz applies to his canvas, perhaps the only tentative ones are those putting Bryant in the frame. She's present, it seems, merely to serve as a catalyst for the Raphelson-Sturgess set-to, as if she's been brought on to complete that Oedipal triangle. Although she's intended as a breath of stateside air and a too-young romantic foil for Raphelson, Baitz doesn't follow through with much conviction. Raphelson and Bryant get to dance and share an awkward kiss. For a few minutes, she holds still while he finds reasons not to complete a drawing of her. But, ultimately, she doesn't get to travel emotionally from here to there, as Raphelson and Sturgess do.

Although Raphelson goes after Jackson Pollock in one of his anti-post World War II tirades, his studio looks a lot like that of the action painter. Indeed, as Ralph Funicello has designed it, the large space with skylight looks like every painter's studio that has ever had brushes, easels, liquor bottles, sinks, wooden racks, and tins of paint remover crammed into it, not to mention canvases in varying states of completion. According to credits tucked away in the program, Daniel Adel and Frances Middendorf did the work attributed to Raphelson. Using a palette favoring tans, browns, beiges and ochres, they succeeded admirably; the paintings look as if they could fetch high prices in the 1992 market and might even sell to the discerning collectors John Guare created for Six Degrees of Separation.

Daniel Sullivan, who has a way with Baitz scripts, keeps up his end of the partnership by wresting every nuance from the situations presented, and that includes making sure that Raphelson and Sturgess both get around to the tedious jobs of cleaning brushes and wiping off paint trays. He elicits performances from his cast that are as finished as Raphelson insists his canvases aren't. As Donald Sutherland peers at an empty canvas, white hair hanging to his shoulders, he looks as if he's gazing into treacherous ravines. When called upon, he can be charming and distancing simultaneously. Denis O'Hare, whose German accent was on the money in Cabaret, does equally well with South African inflections and makes Fabricant's mood swings scarily real. He'll have dealers all over town asking friends, "Do I act like that?"

Julianna Margulies, whom many might have thought had inextricably associated herself with the Carol Hathaway role on television's ER, here has morphed into a vulnerable scientist concerned that research will avail nothing. As the actress has dark hair and thick brows, she lends the play an unexpected grace note when she sits for her portrait and suddenly looks like a Frida Kahlo stand-in. (Twice, Raphelson mentions that he worked under Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera, and even contributed to his work.) But it's Justin Kirk who all but trots off with the proceedings. From the moment he enters as if mired in aspic, he conjures the numberless thoughts and reservations Sturgess is having about the job he's committed himself to. The character definitely looks like someone who, brought up on Ritalin, is now having a very slow recovery from the trendy cure. Kirk has carefully built his portrayal so that Sturgess' sarcasm seems to emanate from some place hidden within him, as does his ironic blend of cockiness and low self-esteem.

It can be said of few playwrights that each play they write is better than the one preceding it. Perhaps it can be said of only one operating today. If so, that playwright is Jon Robin Baitz. Ten Unknowns is the latest example of him craftily continuing to master his craft.