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Review: ‘Beneath the Gavel’ Interrogates the Art World Via the Auction House

By Justin Sharon, Contributing Writer, March 22, 2017

“I’ve always felt that a lot of modern art is a con, and that the most successful painters are often better salesmen and promoters than they are artists,” said by a man in 1987 who knows art, or at least The Art of the Deal. Presumably the president would enjoy Beneath the Gavel, which sends up an auction world where manufacturing fifteen minutes of fame for clients is paramount, and oligarchs vie with hedge fund heavies to flip trophy works for fun.

The play is receiving its New York City premiere at 59E59 Theaters, where Christie’s fittingly enough once had an outpost. It recounts a fictionalized relationship between prominent collector Haddie Weisenberg, many of whose most valuable possessions were either appropriated by the Nazis or firebombed in Dresden during World War II, and artist Daniel Zeigler. A backstory pitting pillage against art restitution will be familiar to anyone who saw Woman in Gold or has followed the curious case of Hamburg’s hermit hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt.

Often spotlighting artist and muse concurrently, the action also includes dealer cameos and appearances by the likes of Lichtenstein and Kandinsky. Scenes switch from Berlin 1985 to New York 2015, a time of seismic shifts in the industry, as starving artists in Soho lofts give way to speculator patrons who view art as little more than a means to park cash and confer expensive bragging rights. Enter the high-priced auction houses, depicted here as crooks with Oxford accents, who aren’t above indulging in shenanigans such as ‘chandelier bidding’ beneath the gavel. This show conveys something of the electricity, adrenaline rush, and energy which invariably accompany evening sales at such institutions. Equally, it deftly skewers trendy downtown culture vulture types who stop sipping their lattes just long enough to air kiss each other while searching out the next “It” artist. One scene on a subway, complete with manic techno music, is especially memorable.

Moira O’Sullivan, whose characters include a vacuous Gagosian Gallery girl, is the production’s standout performer with a mien which brings to mind Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. Of course, nothing attracts moss faster than the avant-garde, and parts of the play feel instantly dated. Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are each name-checked as cutting edge exemplars of stratospheric art prices. Yet Mr. Hirst, having sold his soul to the devil by saturating the market, is currently persona non grata to many influential collectors. As for Koons, his ‘Jim Beam — Observation Car’ just sold at Christie’s for a cool million bucks less than it commanded only four years ago.

Beneath The Gavel incorporates interactive elements as well. Upon entering the theater, patrons are presented with a paddle and pair of plastic pop art X-ray specs. The glasses invoke a 3-D feel amid bidding wars for prized works that the “Three D’s” of Death, Divorce, and Debt have helped consign. This as high denomination dollar bills (ersatz, alas) rain down on the audience. It’s a cute concept even if, by the third ‘auction’ of a two hour production, the joke has worn thinner than Jackson Pollock’s paint.

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Audience bidding at ‘Beneath the Gavel;’ photo: Will Gangi.

On balance, however, Gavel does a decent job at conveying the madcap antics of an endlessly fascinating milieu. Perhaps a fourth D—The Donald—will pay a visit.

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Beneath The Gavel at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street (between Park and Madison), through Sunday, April 9th. Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes including one intermission. Devised by Bated Breath Theater Company; written and directed by Mara Lieberman; production manager: Tate Burmeister; costume design by Gail Fresia; lighting by design Jen Rock. Cast: Gabriel Aprea (Geoffrey Thompson/various roles), Missy Burmeister (Tracey Allister/various roles), Corey Finzel (Daniel Zeigler/various roles), Sean Hinckle (Stewart Felso/various roles), Moira O’Sullivan (Charlotte McHenry/various roles), and Debra Walsh (Haddie Weisenberg/various roles).

 

Cover: Moira O’Sullivan, Corey Finzel and Melissa Burmeister in ‘Beneath the Gavel;’ photo: Will Gangi.

 


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