What is art “supposed” to do? Is there a proper way to view art, much less judge it? Is art even art if you don’t know the artist’s backstory, or at least a portion of it?
. . . the actors did wonderful jobs of transporting the audience back to, not a simpler time, but a time on the cusp of some real cultural and social upheavals. . .
These questions are at the forefront of “A Thing of Beauty,” a new comedy about an art competition set in a small New England town. Written by D.W. Gregory, who also wrote the moving “Radium Girls,” the play is a nostalgic set piece with stereotypical characters and quaintness abounding.
The cast, including Washington Stage Guild company members Bill Largess, Laura Giannarelli and Lynn Steinmetz, along with Danny Beason and Danielle Scott, is directed by Steven Carpenter.
The time is post-war (meaning WWII) New England and the leading citizens of a traditional seaside resort are stunned when two of the three judges of an annual community art competition cast their votes for a nude painting of a woman’s lush backside. The clutching-her-pearls organizer and major donor, Mrs. Bouffant (Laura Giannarelli), goes on a tear attempting to persuade one of the judges, Captain Bilgewater (Bill Largess), to change his vote.
Mrs. Bouffant wants “uplifting” art; Bilgewater and the other other judge are looking for talent. And if the talent happens to come from the lower classes, a mailman or garbageman, say, so much the better. It’s nobler.
Turns out the painting actually was done by the town’s mailman, played by Danny Beason. His girlfriend/fiancée, who is also Mrs. Bouffant’s secretary, had modeled for him. But in a fit of jealousy when she believes that a tone-deaf opera singer named, I believe, Miss Tightwaist, was really the model, she hides it in a fireplace.
In the meantime, a famous art critic has come to town (wonderfully cynically played by Lynn Steinmetz, who also plays the other judge, a fluttering older woman); however, they don’t have a winning painting to show her—at least not one she’s been promised secretly by Captain Bildgwater. Hijinks, misunderstandings, high dungeon—they all ensue, and they are all neatly tidied up at the end.
The most developed character seems to be that of the art critic, oddly enough. She is cynical, loves a drink, lacks pretension, and is brash in that New York way. Yet she loves art and delivers some of the most memorable lines on why people should buy art—and how they should buy it. She’s a realist with a solid core of idealism, but she’s not in angst about it. She’s just doing what she can to broaden perspectives about art, and make money too. I think, in the parlance of the time, she would have been cast as the “broad.” In a Rosalind Russell kind of way.
The others seem rather stock for a period farce. But the most baffling relationship was the young mailman/painter (and decorated war hero) and his fiancée—she has absolutely no understanding of his need to create art, so one wonders why 1) the younger couple are together, and 2) why she agreed to pose for him in what was at the time a very risqué way.
But the actors did wonderful jobs of transporting the audience back to, not a simpler time, but a time on the cusp of some real cultural and social upheavals—one thing the script does very well and very subtly is give a sense of the undercurrent. The art and the pearl-clutching and the highjinks are just the delivery vehicle for the rumblings and stirrings.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
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