Presented by the Boomerang Theatre Company at Center Stage/NY, 48 W. 21st St., NYC, Sept. 10–Oct. 2.
"Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects, such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art," says Donner (Ronald Cohen), an 80-ish artist, speaking the words of (and channeling the views of) young Tom Stoppard in "Artist Descending a Staircase."
True to its radio origins (the 1972 radio play was first staged in 1998), much of the play depends on aural cues: A sound loop of Donner muttering "Ah, there you are," followed by a loud crash, functions as comic "entrance music." Sound designer Ann Warren succeeds with complicated comic cues. Donner is dead at the bottom of the stairs as the play begins, and his two surviving artist roommates, Martello (Tom Knutson) and Beauchamp (Ed Schultz), are each certain the other pushed him.
The play moves backwards in time before going forward again. Donner's diatribe is a decades-long argument whose subtext, we discover, has as much to do with love and loss as form and style. In "Artist Descending a Staircase," the central scene of loss is not the death of Sophie (Mary Murphy)—a young blind woman loved by the young Donner (Joe Whelski) and abandoned by the young Beauchamp (high-spirited Michael Poignand)—but a comic scene in which the three youths wander onto a World War I battlefield. In 1972, the oldsters reminisce about "the postprandial nap" in great houses before the Great War. The play is a wake-up call.
Director John Hurley expresses each level of meaning with uneven results. Murphy overenunciates and pushes; Schultz and Cohen wander into hamminess. Both Martellos—young and old—do well, but they often seem a bit aimless. Whelski is particularly expressive in a poignant scene with Sophie in which he does not speak. Stoppard's words (and silences) surpass any faults. This comic jigsaw murder mystery has heart—and art.