Karen Kendal and Anthony Mackie in Talk
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Karen Kendal and Anthony Mackie in Talk
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Classical allusions and spirited dialogue are front and center in Carl Hancock Rux's challenging new play Talk, presented by the Foundry Theater. The deceptively simple title belies the richness and complexity at the heart of this fascinating work. Rux creates vibrant characters, each with his or her own distinct personality and failings, brought to vivid life by a terrific ensemble cast under the direction of Marion McClinton.

Talk is about a young scholar (Anthony Mackie) who brings together five panelists to discuss the life and work of Archer Aymes, a controversial African-American artist of Rux's invention. It seems that Aymes made a splash with the 1959 publication of his only novel, Mother and Son, and its subsequent adaptation as an experimental film; later, he led a protest at the Museum of Antiquities in New York City during which several valuable artworks were destroyed and an unidentified woman was killed. Aymes was arrested on second-degree manslaughter charges and reportedly committed suicide while incarcerated.

"I have been told that most of what I think I know is incorrect," says the scholar and panel moderator. It soon becomes clear that each panelist has his or her own agenda and emotional investment in Aymes's work. Ion (James Himelsbach) has just completed writing the first biography of the artist; Phaedo (Maria Tucci) was Aymes's lover and also starred in the film version of his novel; Meno (John Seitz) feels that Aymes wasted his potential; the musician Crito (Reg E. Cathey) launched his career with an album based on his last encounter with Aymes. But it's the performance artist Apollodorus (Karen Kandel) who was with Aymes at the fateful museum riot, and so she is the person who may hold the clues to the identity of the woman who died and the reason that Aymes killed himself. All five panelists have secrets to be slowly revealed, and their often conflicting views on Aymes and his work drive the narrative action.

Talk contains many memorable moments and fine character work from the actors. Meno is at first something of a clown, with his ridiculous toupee and cartoonish facial expressions; Seitz plays the comic potential of his buffoonery and racism but also endows him with a certain dignity and authority. Kandel's regal bearing as Appolodorus, and her total commitment to individual words and actions, grounds this most mysterious of Rux's characters. She opens the play in a dreamlike sequence and plays an integral part in the equally surreal climactic scene.

James Noone's lush set for Talk
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
James Noone's lush set for Talk
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The names of the characters are drawn from Plato's Socratic dialogues. Socrates debated with Ion on human creativity and with Meno on ethics; Phaedo, Crito, and Apollodorus were students of Socrates, all present when the philosopher was executed for heresy and corrupting the minds of the young. Rux also includes an extended allusion to Euripides' The Bacchae, focusing on the section in which Agave beheads her son, Pentheus. This use of philosophy and mythology is an ironic counterpoint to Aymes' attempts to smash the great works of the past, starting with an ancient Greek vase.

As its title indicates, Talk is verbally dense; in fact, the characters sometimes speak simultaneously. They argue back and forth in rapid-fire dialogue that is difficult to keep up with, dropping the names of cultural and historical figures like filmmaker Maya Deren, beat poet Jack Kerouac, and surrealist André Breton. The cacophony of words has a rhythmic quality that at times approaches poetry, and McClinton deserves special credit for finding the dramatic possibilities within these heady discussions.

Tim Schellenbaum's excellent sound design underscores a good deal of the play, varying between low, guttural noises and more instrumental melodies. The rest of the design team also make significant contributions. James Noone's breathtakingly beautiful set makes good use of the vaulted ceiling of the Public Theater's LuEsther Hall: marble staircases and Greek sculptures and vases give the set a classical look that is complemented by James Vermeulen's rich, atmospheric lighting.

Talk raises provocative questions on the nature of art, the construction of identity, and the weight of history. It is not for those who seek an evening of light entertainment; rather, this work demands that its audience think, and it avoids any kind of simplistic resolution. The ending does not clear up all of the play's mysteries, but the emotional climax is both exciting and, I daresay, cathartic.