Playwright: Jessica Dickey
At: Steppenwolf Theatre Upstairs, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; Steppenwolf.org; $20-$104. Runs through: Nov. 5
Simon, a dying old poet, comforts his younger lover of 35 years, as Henry whispers calmly but urgently, "Don't die! Don't Die! Don't Die!" and sobs in Simon's arms.
This final scene of The Rembrandt is profound, moving, tender and true. I know because I've been Henry, sobbing in the arms of an older, dying man. This is why we go to theater: not to see our lives replicated, but to revisit emotions and understand ourselves and life better because of it. Remarkable actors John Mahoney and Francis Guinan are Simon and Henryever-sympathetic, likeable and honestand Hallie Gordon has directed the entire show with great sensitivity.
It's frustrating, therefore, that the play's first 80 minutes are not about Henry and Simon. Indeed, the first three scenes and the final one are without emotional connections, although there are intellectual connections. Alas, ideas alone may make a play witty but not necessarily good, as George Bernard Shaw's voluminous output demonstrates. Author Jessica Dickey is witty enough and often funny ( "I'm not mentally ill, I'm an artist," explains one character ), and her script provides accessible explanations about the artistic experience of both artist and audience. But none of this has any direct connection to the lovers, except that one's a poet and the other a retired art history teacher ... but the play isn't about their careers.
Retired Henry now is an art-museum guard over Rembrandt's legendary painting, "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer." At the start, Henry teaches the daily routine to a new guard, Dodger ( Ty Olwin ), a twentysomething, tattooed street artist. However, Dodger's just a plot device, an agent provocateur we never see again, who urges Henry actually to touch the Rembrandt painting. Henry, Dodger and a young art copiest ( Karen Rodriguez ) do touch the painting, thereby time-warping back to Rembrandt's studio in 1650s Amsterdam, and then further back to Homer, who delivers a monologue directly to the audience. Only then are we back in the present with Henry and Simon.
Rembrandt and Homer discuss their work. A maudlin Rembrandt ( Guinan ) is disgusted with painting his own face, insults wealthy patrons and has a love/hate relationship with his needy adult son ( Olwin ). Homer ( Mahoney ) says his work must be heard, not written down and read, and he doubts whether his writings will endure ... and he isn't blind. En route, Dickey's exposition and ideas are heavy-handed and repetitious. She doesn't intend to write down to audiences, but she does until the final scene. Even if amusing, The Rembrandt is pedestrian and unsubtle. It tackles admittedly profound ideas and the connections between people, but I'd settle for just the connections between Simon and Henry.