Right now, Bunin's most impressive gift is the ability to write dialogue that is smart, funny, and revealing--often simultaneously. He seems very aware of this gift, for it isn't every playwright who plunks two characters down in facing chairs and has them gab for 15 or 20 minutes without moving. Nor is it every director who would be confident enough to allow this to go on, although Michael Mayer--who has proved over the past few years that he knows how to handle large and small casts--does just that: gives his actors room to relax and breathe.
The Act I, Scene Two talkathon under discussion here is between Winston (Lee Pace) and Amelia (Annie Parisse). He's an art student/library checkout clerk, she's a singer/waitress. They're brought together regularly because her boyfriend, Jamie (Glenn Howerton), and Winston are roommates. Amelia has regular sleepovers at Jamie's and Winston's large but frills-free East 10th Street apartment in Manhattan, where set designer Derek McLane sees to it that there's good northern light but dishes have to be washed in the bathroom tub.
Winston and Amelia get to palavering when he sets about sketching her for a painting he's going to make. Since she's posing in the nude, he thinks chitchat will put her at ease. To make her even more comfy, he strips to his birthday suit. Naked, the two arrange themselves tastefully; she's in a club chair, he's on a stool. Which means that although there's some full-frontal action--and both nubile actors are lovely to look at--there is very little anatomical distraction from what they have to say.
Their increasingly intimate discussion isn't necessarily memorable for what they say, although Winston has a compelling speech about how beautiful New York City looks when a fellow is taking a cab home after a one-night stand. Rather, the talk is memorable for how it leads to the characters' recognition of their attraction to each other. It also leads to the rancorous end of Amelia's liaison with Jamie, who has been pitching marriage often and fervently, and to a brief affair that the impulsive Winston ends abruptly and harmfully.
This triangular romance constitutes the first play Bunin is grappling with in The Credeaux Canvas. The playwright might say that the second is merely a framework for the first, but audiences might disagree, led as they are by the play's lengthy first scene to believe something else entirely is going to pop here. The something else is a scam Jamie cooks up so that he and his impecunious pals can make a few bucks. The son of a recently deceased art dealer, Jamie has only just learned that he won't benefit from his father's death. Realizing the money he needs to alleviate his situation as a so-so real estate broker isn't forthcoming, he talks Winston into creating a forgery to be sold to one of his dad's best customers, Tess (E. Katherine Kerr). Jamie plans to claim that the work, for which Amelia is doing that bare-skin modeling, is by Jean-Paul Credeaux, an obscure turn-of-the-20th-century impressionist. Hence, of course, the play's title.
Bunin devotes most of the play's first scene into setting up this flim-flam, and it makes great sense for any audience to think that the rest of the piece is going to demonstrate how the scheme connects or misfires. He does follow through to the extent that Tess, a woman who thinks she understands more about art than she does, eventually travels to East 10th Street to view the fake Credeaux; by turns, she believes in it because she wants to believe in it and suspects its authenticity because she knows enough about modern art to ask the right questions. These questions are fielded adroitly by Jamie and Winston...up to a point.
Now, either of the comedy-dramas Bunin is writing under the Credeaux Canvas title could work. Or both of them could work, had they been integrated more skillfully. But, as it is, they seem to be clashing with each other. The play that comes out on top, partly because Tess' visit isn't as convincing as Bunin means it to be, is the one about the star-crossed menage a trois. Indeed, the entire canvas plot seems as if it was rigged as a springboard into a study of three young people trying to make progress in today's money-mad Manhattan. An amalgam of Noel Coward's Design for Living fast-forwarded from 1932 to 2001, Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth played for wastrels rather than druggers, and Jonathan Larsen's Rent retooled for young adults resigned to paying landlords, Bunin's play gives the impression of being his commentary on how today's lousy values have addled Gen X.
Winston, Jamie, and Amelia are three rudderless souls, and as such are instantly recognizable. At least at first. Jamie is the poor rich kid who doubts his own abilities and--contriving to compensate for what he feels he lacks--only succeeds in believing in himself less. Annie is that youngster of modest talent who's come to the big city to make a splash and slowly realizes she's wading aimlessly through puddles.
Bunin's best creation is Winston, who may be a genius but who is also compulsive, a near nervous wreck. Driven by talent's adrenaline, he can only see the path he's set himself on. He may appear to fraternize with others, but he's really registering no one but himself. His ambition is supposedly his tragic flaw. As Bunin writes Winston, blind ambition is his tragic flaw. When, in the last scene, four years have gone by and the character has made little progress, Bunin suggest that the painter's narcissism has sabotaged his artistic endeavors.
What Bunin wants to say in his play (is Credeaux meant as a homonym for "credo"?) is that art's obligatory ingredient is the ability to love. But is it true? Museum walls the world over are covered by the work of artists who, in their personal lives, abused family and friends. This might have been the foremost lesson to be learned from MOMA's exhibit of Picasso's women four or five years ago. Monomania often leads to great works; it's one of the paradoxes of artistic endeavor. Had Bunin thought about that, he might have come up with a more interesting and accurate drama.
He might not have wished for better players, though. From the moment Lee Pace wakes up from the pallet he's sleeping on at play's start, he gives one of those career-making performances. As he begins his day, he's unable to stand still. His Winston leaps about the room, shifts from leg to leg like an anxious egret, stutters in short, enthralls. As the play unfolds and Winston wises up to himself, Pace becomes increasingly still, but nothing erases those first impressions of a resourceful actor demonstrating complete on-stage confidence. Incidentally, the lanky lad graduated from Juilliard just minutes ago.
Pace is so effective, in fact, that he seems to have thrown down a challenge to Glenn Howerton, another recent Juilliard alumnus who arrives on a similar but somehow less convincing acting high. "Notice me, too," he seems to be saying. In time, however, he remembers he's in a play and not an acting competition and applies himself to the business of finding all the disturbing subtleties of Jamie's low self-esteem. By the time Jamie skulks out of the play, Howerton has infused in his performance all the dark adumbrations of a young man aware of his limited future. Annie Parisse's Amelia is perhaps the least interesting of the three characters--her fate involves the suburbs and all the attendant conventions. Nonetheless, she has a glow, particularly in that midnight tête-à-tête. As Tess, E. Katherine Kerr in her one scene nails the monied lady's pretensions with the ease and finality of a world-class wrestler pinning an opponent to the mat.
The costumes, lighting, and sound for The Credeaux Canvas are by, respectively, Michael Krass, Kenneth Posner, and Scott Myers, and they all help to make Bunin's crowded Canvas as sporadically effective as it is.