|L - R James Urbaniak and Malcolm Barrett - Photos by Zoe Tiller
By Joe Straw
I loved spy vs spy in the Mad comic books. I don’t know why, I just did. - narrator
Jeremy Win presents a visiting production at the Odyssey Theatre, the world premiere of Brushstroke written by John Ross Bowie and directed by Casey Stangl through March 3, 2024.
Rain pours down on a studio window outside a lower east side loft. The place is not as majestic, as some lofts can be but then again this is an artist’s loft, dripping lines of dry paint splatter not only the canvas but everywhere, unfinished canvases are propped against the walls, and other frames haphazardly hang against the studio walls or above the unkempt door frame. After a quick purview, the studio is a masterpiece of sorts, browns and dirty greys canvas the window where acid raindrops drip down the windowpane of this Lower East Side of Manhattan space during the year of someone’s lord 1956. (A beautiful set design by Keith Mitchell.)
In any case, the setting was cold, almost uninhabitable, except for the lone man sitting in the dark his eyes barely visible, stiff right leg extended Ted (James Urbaniak) waits for a patron to step into his studio, look at his work, give a few comments, and maybe say a kind word or two about his paintings before getting the hell out. The magic, he believes, lies beyond the “fourth wall” of his studio hoping that today is his lucky day.
Marvin (Malcolm Barrett), is, was a student, a Yale graduate, an art history major, certainly not one to understand the finer points of abstract expressionism or cubism to know if it is a masterpiece. He is apologetic, to the tenth degree, in his misrepresentation of someone who does know art, more so in his manner of conducting himself, so apologetic that he is summarily squeamish. And although his presentation is an educated one, one can clearly see that his presentation lacks the sincerity of his own money later displayed by the hole underneath his right arm in his suit.
(It is an element of this presentation that makes the play that much more fascinating.)
Marvin tells Ted his plan of showcasing American artists through his organization the Congress for Cultural Freedom and developing those who have the potential to become something more than the ordinary, a small step forward battling the communists gains in the east. Marvin discloses to Ted that he has money to buy. Ted introduces himself as the artist who has signed the paintings and tells him that the work is, in fact, part of a series.
The windowpanes slide open to reveal a setting in park, possibly Washington Square, where his contact Allan (Brendan Hines) inconspicuously takes in a pre-springtime day. Marvin also unremarkably sits on the bench next to him as Allan speaks in code. Marvin moves beyond that only to be warned to keep the conversation discreet and on target as discussed.
Marvin returns to the studio and meets Ted’s sister Susan (Evangeline Edwards). Greek music is playing on the record player and they both dance to the tune, Marvin embarrassingly so, but giving it his best shot.
The play Brushstroke by John Ross Bowie is exceptional, smartly written, and weaves a story filled with ambiguity and hidden agendas. The characters objectives are very subtle, living their lives and taking orders like good subordinates. Their actions are devious at times and a play that one thinks about the outcome long after leaving the theatre. Each character has, in their own way, an undisclosed purpose, an objective. Getting out of their predicament alive is probably what they all hope for. Tragically, a mistake was made, or possibly an accumulation of mistakes that ultimately makes this piece a tragedy despite it being billed as a comedy thriller. There’s more here than meets the eye. Bowie’s work is very clever.
Overall, very good work by director Casey Stangl, strong character work, the acting is first rate, beautifully constructed that ultimately elevates the night. One might say there is an unseen force that guides all the participants which makes this a fascinating night of theatre. But the night might also require accentuating the moments that need defining, moments that elevates the through line to a satisfying conclusion. One, is the love relationship that doesn’t go far enough for the audience (me) to understand Susan’s final action. Secondly, Marvin’s action need definition to show us how Marvin gets into trouble.
James Urbaniak (Ted) gives a spirited performance. Ted has been given a job, but he is entirely misrepresented. He is not really the person he claims to be which he plays to the hilt, ordering his assistant/sister to do the work of a maid could they afford one. Ted, on some kind of power trip, appears to be testing the man buying his artwork and stops at no end to get the desired effect. There’s a lot going on with the character and it’s difficult to find the answer in a character that moves in uninhabitable circles.
Malcolm Barrett gives a grand physical life as Marvin, a nebbish spy coming out from the cold, a rookie in a world of players. He creates this grand physical life of the character but as he steps out of frame, smoking dope, drinking, we never get the danger from the problem he has gotten himself into and how he tries to overcome his predicament. There may be another level of awareness that may give this character additional life. Also, there may be more to have with his relationship to the woman which stops short of being any kind of love, much less a romantic one. Still, some excellent work.
Brendan Hines is impressive as Allan, stanch and conservative with some of a bossy mean streak, all the making of a remarkable character. After one viewing it’s difficult to determine the objective of this character and how he benefits from his last action.
Evangeline Edwards is stunning as Susan. Her voice is rich, and her manner is unpredictable, certainly what is needed in a play loaded with spies. She has a definitive presence and a remarkable flair for handling the mundane while creatively making it her own. Susan moves about the stage with a secret that she is not about to unload until the precise time, or the precise time of her choosing and until she hurriedly makes her final exit. Her final action is ambiguous, underwritten by someone she probably doesn’t even know, which makes it ultimately a fascinating night of theatre.
Jeremy Wein is the marvelous producer of this show. The entire look of the production is something one doesn’t see on the smaller stages in Los Angeles. The work is wonderful.
Denise and Lon Bevers are the co-producers of this very fine production.
Futurehome is listed at the associate producers – Founder Josh Sobel, partner BK Dawson.
Other members of this outstanding crew are as follows:
Soran Schwartz – Lighting Design
Marc Antonio Pritchett – Sound Design & Fight Coordination
Christine Cover Ferro – Costume Design
Joyce Hutter – Property Design
Lexie Secrist – Production Stage Manager
Andrew Blahak – Assistant State Manager
Run! Run! Run!
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