San Francisco Playhouse’s Bauer is the umpteenth local production by prolific local playwright Lauren Gunderson in the last few years, after The Taming and Exit, Pursued by a Bear with Crowded Fire Theater, I and You at Marin Theatre Company, By and By with Shotgun Players, Silent Sky with TheatreWorks, Emilie with Symmetry Theatre Company, and Toil and Trouble and the short “Damsel and Distress Go to a Party” with Impact Theatre Company. But it’s the very first SF Playhouse commission that has reached the company’s main stage season. As artistic director Bill English explained in his preshow speech opening night, he was so enthralled by a documentary about painter Rudolf Bauer that he saw on TV that he asked Gunderson to write a play about the artist. Like a lot of Gunderson’s recent plays, Bauer already had a subsequent production lined up before it premiered, and it’s going to New York’s 59E59 Theaters in the fall.
Once considered a prominent non-objective or abstract artist alongside painters such as Kandinsky, Bauer’s work was central to the collection of Solomon Guggenheim but abruptly plunged into obscurity after his patron’s death. A German painter whose adherence to the avant-garde vision had landed him in Gestapo prison prior to his emigration to the United States, Bauer abruptly stopped painting for the rest of his life after a seeming betrayal by one of his closest friends and advocates, and Gunderson’s play sets out to explore just what the hell happened to make such a dedicated artist turn his back on his art forever. “I was reflecting on how we got here,” Bauer says at the beginning, and that pretty much sums up the next hour and a half.
The set by English (who also directs) is particularly eye-catching: an immense and long-neglected painter’s studio, with all the walls and floor severely slanted. It seemingly hasn’t been touched in many years, so it’s a surprise to find that this is a room in the house where Bauer still lives, but he’s only returning to it now for a meeting with the woman who ruined his life. (We learn this, conveniently, because his wife repeatedly calls him “Rudolf Bauer, who lives in this house.”)
Ronald Guttman is a moody Bauer, playful with his wife and twitchy and alarmingly agitated when squabbling with the dark lady of his life, speaking much too fast in the German accent they all share (though they make a big deal of the fact that his wife is in fact Austrian). Stacy Ross makes a delightfully sly and formidable Hilla Rebay, Bauer’s former lover, promoter and handler who’s come to see him since he cut himself off 10 years ago. The way she pointed holds out her coat behind her, demanding that Bauer’s wife take it, speaks volumes without saying a word. (Costumer Abra Berman dresses Hilla in ’50s finery, in contrast to the others’ simpler clothes.)Company producing director Susi Damilano is stolid and subdued as Bauer’s long-suffering wife, Louise, originally hired by Hilla to be his housemaid.
The play is made up of circular arguments, first between Rudolf and Louise and then between Bauer and Hilla, and each is wearyingly long and repetitive with variations in tone. The constant squabbling gives occasion for a plethora of witty lines, almost all of them delivered by Ross’s Hilla. “Of course, I’m making it worse,” she says. “I always do. It’s usually fun, but now it’s just sad.” She’s a steady font of sardonic zingers, most of them scathing.
The conversations touch upon some interesting material about art as a commodity and as a way of seeing the world, and there are a few fascinating historical tidbits thrown in along the way, such as the unintended runaway success of the exhibit of “degenerate art” arranged by the Nazis to shame modern artists. English’s staging gives us some stunning glimpses of Bauer’s bold and colorful artwork in Micah J. Stieglitz’s projections on the walls as the artist rummages through old boxes.
Gunderson is fond of upbeat inspirational endings about the redemptive power of following your dream, whether it’s art or science or changing the world, and that makes for a very awkward fit with this particular story. The resolution feels completely implausible and out of nowhere, and when Bauer doesn’t speak for a long time at the end while everything’s working itself out, I almost hoped that he would eventually say more or less the same thing: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
One thing the play does is pique the curiosity about Bauer’s art, giving just enough of a taste of it to make the viewer curious to see more so it’s especially convenient that the Weinstein Gallery on Geary Street is featuring a retrospective of the painter’s work just a couple blocks away. And that in itself feels like a kind of redemption—that even if Bauer’s work was buried away in his day, it’s now once again seeing the light of day.
Show #27 of 2014, attended March 22.