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William Abadie and Nandana Sen
in Modigliani
(Photo: Robert Castle)
"Everyone wants a Van Gogh in their parlor, but nobody wanted Van Gogh." So says one of the recklessly self-destructive artists in the current revival of Dennis McIntrye's 1978 play Modigliani. After seeing this production, we can tell you that you wouldn't want any of these artists in your parlor, either. Except you're not supposed to think that when the line is uttered -- and that's why this show fails. Robert Castle directs the play at such a histrionic level that all of the characters that should intrigue an audience very quickly end up repelling us.

McIntryre's play encompasses three days in the desperate life of struggling artist Amedeo Modigliani. An Italian Jew in Paris, when we meet him Modigliani is in poor health and even poorer circumstances. Nonetheless, he is living a life of prodigious excess. The play takes place in 1917, three years before the painter's untimely death at the age of thirty-five. He has been in Paris for ten years and has had virtually no success. His creative fires have appeared to bank. Sick, exhausted, yet unable to sleep, Modigliani is deliriously clinging to one shred of hope: a famous dealer saw one of his sketches and is coming to Paris to meet him. That anticipated meeting gives the play its dramatic arc.

There is built-in poignancy in Modigliani that is sadly left on the page. Sometimes, however, the play's richness soars above an overbaked production to wrench the heart. It happens when we hear that Picasso, whom we had previously been told had a painting of Modigliani's on his studio wall, needed a canvas one night and scraped the paint off our hero's work so that he might use it to paint one of his own pictures. At a moment like that we feel Modigliani's pain. Most of the time, though, we just feel our own pain at witnessing the relentlessly overwrought Modigliani (William Abadie) and his two (soon-to-be-famous) artist friends, Chaim Soutine (Panos Makedonas) and Maurice Utrillo (Jacob Battat), howl and whine in a constant state of drunkenness.

To be fair, Modigliani isn't always as stupefyingly wasted as the other two, but in his state of high anxiety he is just as punishingly shrill as the other two. These three artists did indeed lead lives so on the edge that they'd likely be institutionalized today. Soutine had a thing for rotten meat. Utrillo had a passion for his mother that would have made Freud blush. Modigliani, at least in this play, was relatively more sane than his pals. He also comes across as an intensely loyal, if unreliable, friend. What is lacking in his production, however, is modulation and subtlety in performance. Modigliani is strident almost all of the time, whether drunk, sober, in bed with his lover, or meeting his agent. His two friends are presented strictly as buffoons when they should be seen as a combination of comic eccentrics, artistic visionaries, and fundamentally lost souls trying to find redemption in their art.

Three performances stand out because they are in contrast to the bellowing that goes on elsewhere in the play. Nandana Sen plays the writer Beatrice Hastings who lived with Modigliani and served as one of his more famous models. Her portrait of a sensual, cajoling egoist has lots of color and personality. Driven by a variety of desires, her performance as Hastings has a texture that most of the other characters in the play do not display. [By the way, the playwright takes a bit of literary license with Hastings and puts her in Modigliani's life in 1917 (rather than 1913-14). In real life, the painter was married and had a child by 1917.] The other actor who commands attention is Bruno Gelormini, who plays the rich and influential art dealer Guillaume Cheron. His carefully measured words, coupled with his glances of contempt that contain just a sprinkle of pity, add up to a powerful performance. Finally, Jack Michel-Bernard plays Sbo, Modigliani's fully committed agent. The actor convincingly displays a man of limited means and manners who, nonetheless, has a deep and abiding passion for art.

The inherent poverty of the play's lead characters is captured in Kim Matela's wonderfully tawdry costume designs. Doug Matela's lighting design disappoints, however, as light and color should be a more intimate part of a production about fine art. So, too, the set design by Alejandra Orozco lacks imagination. The lumbering scene changes only draw more attention to the inadequacy of the sets. Please note that, though Modigliani is playing in the York Theatre Company's venue at St. Peter's Church, it is not a YTC production.

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