It's always especially fortunate for a play, upon its opening, to be riding a wave of the zeitgeist. The current very visible vogue for "outsider art" has been documented recently in such venues as New York magazine and the Observer. Also known by its more noisomely pretentious categorization of art brut," it refers to sketches, paintings, collage, or sculpture by individuals untrained in the genre who inhabit the periphery of society. Convicts, transients, psychiatric inmates, shut-ins, hermits, and other non-academics seem to have some handle on an essential truth in their creations that fascinates the cognoscenti. Playwright Catherine Filloux, in her new work, The Price of Madness, attempts to both explore the phenomenon in and of itself and to use it as a vehicle to examine larger human questions and relationships.
The central character is a painter named "Henri," which he's Anglicized to "Henry." Once highly successful, he finds himself "blocked," with his marriage withering along with his creative impulse. While visiting his schizophrenic Aunt Aloise, he discovers that her crayon drawings are actually vital, brilliantly rendered works of art. He brings some home, hoping to be inspired by them. But, when his agent, Paul, finds them and thinks they're Henri's, he's faced with the ethical dilemma of whether or not to claim them as his own.
Aloise's work eventually sells far better than Henri's. Is Filloux saying that truly meaningful and significant art can only come from the super-rational? The program includes quotations from Dali and Thevoz that would lead one to suspect this to be her thesis. Also, her writing begins to run out of energy near the end, with some cheap jokes out of the Frenchman Paul's shaky command of English (mistakenly speaking of "pussywhipping" instead of "pussyfooting").
Director Donna Moreau-Cupp displayed a confident, parsimonious hand in staging the action and has paced the text with a galvanizing dramatic flow. She handled the moments of high comedy with apposite subtlety and palliated the low comedy with a deft hand. Of most significant note, she made beautifully resourceful use of William Moser's splendid split-level set. The bottom half is the stylishly spare Manhattan studio and apartment of Henri and his wife. The top half is Aloise's simply spare bedroom in Delaware. Moreau-Cupp's use of the levels to contrast parallel actions is sharply observed, as when we see the two characters simultaneously at work in their respective modes: he, constipated and overly intellectualized and she, effortless, letting the art flow out from some inner pool, chattering wryly to herself as she draws.
The acting was somewhat problematic. Thomas Schall's Henri was too infrequently emotionally believable and a touch glib. As his wife, Liza O'Keefe offered a somewhat shallow reading. Simon Jutras's Paul was a lovably honest whore. A Gallic elf strongly reminiscent of Bronson Pinchot's "Serge" character in the Beverly Hills Cop flicks. As Aloise, Nicola Shera had a nice handle on a difficult character. Without a trace of condescension or exaggeration, she crafted a formidable spirit within her off-center surface. As Aloise's caregiver, Jane Altman exuded charm in an underwritten role.
Anne Marino and Cathy Small's costumes nicely bespoke the kind of tony art-world couture to which these people would gravitate. The production was also well-served by Brian Haynesworth's elegant lighting and Lewis Flinn's jazz/New Age score.
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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