First Nighter: 'Bauer' Is Marvelously Artistic About Art

What is it about plays in which two women and a man confront each other, sometimes each against the others, sometimes two joining against the third and then switching alliances?

Jean-Paul Sartre perpetuated its power in No Exit at 59E59 Theatres. (Was there another woman in the Sartre-Simone de Beauvoir relationship that prompted him to compose the classic existentialist drama?) Noel Coward made hay with it in his outstanding late play, A Song at Twilight, which was ostensibly about William Somerset Maugham but was also indisputably autobiographical. Harold Pinter got all mysterious about it with Old Times.

The same kind of hurricane intensity drives Bauer, Lauren Gunderson's get-there-fast (59E59 Theatres from the San Francisco Playhouse) three-hander about German émigré painter Rudolf Bauer, whose life and difficult times require explanation pronto.

A pioneer German artist often compared with--and by some preferred to--Vassily Kandinsky for his non-objective innovations, Bauer was introduced to Solomon Guggenheim by Baroness Hilla von Rebay in the '20s. As a result, Guggenheim collected Bauer's work, intending to make him the focus of Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling-ramp Upper East Side museum.

Eventually, Bauer, whose command of English was faulty, signed a contract brought him by one-time lover Rebay that stipulated everything he painted subsequently was owned by Guggenheim. Realizing too late what he'd agreed to, Bauer ceased painting while continuing to live in a Jersey shore home that Guggenheim purchased for him.

In Bauer, Gunderson imagines what transpired when on a day in 1953 Rebay (Stacy Ross) visits Bauer (Sherman Howard) and his wife Louisa (Susi Damilano) in an attempt to persuade the indignant painter to get back to his canvases. Not helping fortify her argument is the news she brings that--Solomon Guggenheim having died--his heirs have decided to show other artists on the museum walls and condemn Bauer's output to storage in the basement--perhaps never to be seen again.

His fury undiminished at Rebay's betrayal but having agreed to her arrival, Bauer is matched in his determination to ignore her ministrations by the imperious, used-to-getting-her-way Rebay. Louisa, whom Rebay initially dismisses as a glorified maid, at first serves as the buffer between the two frenemies, but she, too, wants her husband to pick up his brushes.

For 90 minutes the three of them have at each other in varying combos. Gunderson does compellingly at indicating who has the upper hand in any given moment as well as showing how quickly that upper hand can change. The heated language in which the three address one another is passionately literate. It's the flicking of exquisitely sharp verbal knives. Perhaps the ending is predictable, but not inevitably so, and getting to it is both the fun and the pain of the piece.

Playwright Gunderson does leave a few--ultimately pardonable--holes in the script. The action takes place in Bauer's studio, to which he's returning after many dust-collecting years. And although set designer Bill English, who also serves cannily as director, places a covered canvas on an easel just in front of the bare back wall, it takes Rebay forever to pay attention to it. If she's so eager to see new Bauer works, wouldn't she wonder if the hidden canvas is recent and ask to know about it sooner? Wouldn't she wonder about the other canvases leaning against the bare stage right wall and near the curtained window overlooking the street?

Indeed, when she's informed that Bauer isn't well, wouldn't she press to know more about that, too? Wouldn't she need to get a sense of how long Bauer might have left to work if he actually returned to his forsaken passion?

Speaking of the set: The walls are empty primarily because from time to time projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz has Bauer's actual work slide into view. (Is Stieglitz any relation to the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz? In this content it would make sense.) The projections not only include non-objective works but a few of Bauer's Weimar-Republic-ish portraits. (There's a Bauer exhibit upstairs at 5E59.)

For the explosive denouement, something happens on those walls that won't be described here, but it's a riveting follow-up to Mark Rothko and assistant attacking a canvas in John Logan's Red. The sequence is simultaneously breathtaking, uplifting and heartbreaking.

As Gunderson has written Bauer, the play requires three big performances, and director English has gotten them in spades. Howard, a big man with a face that makes grimness a billboard affair, stalks the room fiercely. Ross, in a tailored suit as red-angry as she is, matches Howard decibel for decibel in determination. Damilano, wearing a beautifully shaped two-toned silver frock (Abra Berman is the costume designer), gives heft to her performance by way of carefully modulated understatement.

In the history of art, the importance of patrons has rarely been underestimated. The egregious result of Solomon Guggenheim's support for Rudolf Bauer is one of the most disturbing instances. In Bauer, it receives superlative treatment.