Written by Sam Marks

Directed by Brandon Stock

What makes one artist more valid than another? And who decides? Often the art world seems to care more about the “narrative” of the artist’s life than what’s actually on the canvas. Pictures with real merit are less likely to fetch high sums than those by artists whose biographies (preferably tragic) make interesting reading.

At least that’s what struggling painter Ben Schmitt (Rory Kulz) tells himself. After one disappointing gallery show, he has settled for a secure, but unglamorous job as an at lecturer. It’s a practical move, seeing as Ben and architect Olive (Alesandra Nahodil), have just bought a fixer-upper home and are expecting a baby. But Ben isn’t quite ready to hang up his ambitions and settle into middle class parenthood. Underneath his laidback exterior, there’s still a part of him that wants – needs – to be an art star. The desires are piqued when he receives a visit from Lara (Adelind Horan). Lara dates Ben’s old friend loft mate Henry, also an aspiring painter. Back in the day, the three of them shared the bohemian life and dreamt of taking the culture by storm. Now, Henry has disappeared, leaving behind a body of interesting work and a note instructing Lara to seek Ben’s expert opinion. The work proves extremely marketable, in part because of alcoholic, self-taught Henry’s “outsider” mystique. Money rolls in, and working-class Lara – now the spokesperson for the vanished artist – finds herself hobnobbing with the intelligentsia. Ben is torn. He’s excited by the attention his friend’s work is getting, but he wishes it were happening to him. He begins drawing furiously, and paying less and less attention to Olive and the complications of her pregnancy. As his passion increases, a dormant attraction to Lara is awakened. Ben’s despair leads him to resort to desperate measures, and in the ensuing conflagration secrets are revealed, relationships are tested and Ben and Olive’s world (sometimes literally) begins to crumble.

THE OLD MASTERS is well-constructed, suspenseful, and often charmingly funny. Playwright Sam Marks scores some accurate points about the trendy insubstantiality of today’s art rhetoric, and his characters are smart and three- dimensional. The actors, too, resist the temptation to default to caricature, and keep their characters archetypal but real. As the play nears its conclusion, though, Marks and director Brandon Stock bring the tone of the show to a shrill boil. The intensity doesn’t seem warranted, and it’s hard to care about the characters as they walk around crazily venting their anger. The quieter moments are more successful, and when Ben and Olive really connect there’s a feeling that something is truly at stake. Less time devoted to Ben’s manic conniving and more to his bond with Olive – a bond his ego threatens to sever – would lend more depth to the play’s compelling blend of acute cultural observation and dramatic tension.

THE OLD MASTERS continues until June 28, at the Flea Theater, 41 White Street, New York, New York. 2015. Tickets:

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