Hats Off to Imaginative Design and Stunning Performance in a Play About Art and Politics.

Lee Blessing’s Chesapeake is now playing at New York’s Second Stage Theater and stars the dynamic, light-footed Mark Linn-Baker. The production’s many fine aspects include the intelligent and sincere thinking shaping the play’s concerns, an imaginative set, and committed and generous acting.

The set is wonderful; black earth blankets the entire stage. A footstool and fallen chair are the only visible objects. Deadpan and evocative, the curving dirt and stark furniture relieve the evening from entirely literal meaning. Both waves of water and a gigantic playground are suggested by the earth, all to good effect for the play’s themes.

Chesapeake, told as a flashback with scenes and other characters performed by the talented Linn-Baker, tells the story of Kerr. Kerr is a white, Southern, sensitive, misunderstood, bisexual artist whose father is distant, conservative, and generally numb to art appreciation. Kerr leaves the South for New York City to explore further the avant-garde thesis of the Italian Futurists; his award of an NEA grant situates him in, that’s right, direct opposition to a powerful, white, Southern, bigoted, older Congressman, named Thurm Poolie. The broad strokes of character development get even broader with the secondary characters – Thurm Poolie’s wife, the calculating, ambitious, horrible Blythe and Thurm Poolie’s mistress, the 20-something, sweet but just as horribly ambitious and unfaithful Stacy. These characters’ two-dimensionality is of course very convenient; otherwise jokes couldn’t regularly be made at their expense, at the unsurprising, sitcom-timed moment. With economy and vividness, Linn-Baker delivers all the characters’ lines.

Chesapeake also calls on Linn-Baker to play a dog. Here the actor really shines and flexes as many innovative muscles as the play allows. Linn-Baker’s limber body, big sad brown eyes, and excellent mimicry all work to suggest dog with great immediacy. Whether having his ears stroked, taking in the satisfying scent of urine-soaked pavement, or shtupping a female puppy, Linn-Baker-as-dog winningly conjures a domestic dog’s habits and mannerisms. The character-as-dog is there to symbolize America, to tie together some disparate strands of plot, and to effect some characters’ spiritual transformations.

The premise that one individual’s life can radically and seemingly randomly alter another individual’s inner conflicts, politics, and moral framework drives Chesapeake‘s narrative. The knowledge that a piece of art can enrage, please, or animate a viewer, no matter the artist’s intentions, is investigated with much relish here. In Chesapeake, the viewer is a politician controlling federal purse strings, and the blending of the artist’s and the politician’s mental processes takes on the structure of a father-son redemption story, to everyone’s benefit. Similar to Wit, art loses its importance in Kerr’s life as Kerr embraces the spirit of amoral, childlike wonderment as a philosophical worldview.