Would a "closet bigot," to borrow Sen. Lindsey Graham's recent phrase, ever recognize himself? That question, one of many the media overlooked during the recent controversy over Supreme Court shoo-in Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s membership in a dubious Princeton alumni group, is the most compelling line of inquiry in Thomas Gibbons' throat-clearingly serious drama, "Permanent Collection."
The play, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, mirrors widely reported events at the Barnes Foundation, a suburban Philadelphia treasure chest of Impressionist art whose anti-art-world founder left a will with enough stipulations to drain a hefty endowment with snowballing legal fees. One of the stipulations was that the foundation would eventually be placed under the control of a small African American university. Another was that the exhibits and oddly restrictive admission policies were to remain unchanged. Leave it to the contemporary art world to create from these circumstances a melodrama that would raise all sorts of prickly issues about race, aesthetics and the public good.
Gibbons focuses his version of events, set here at the fictitious Morris Foundation, on the battle between the new African American director, Sterling North, and the white education director, Paul Barrow. Tense around each other from the start, the two are soon waging all-out war once North announces that he wants to display more of the African art collection, the bulk of which is tucked away in storage. For North, it's a chance to celebrate a cultural heritage that the mainstream is only too happy to ghettoize if not completely bury. Barrow, however, sees it as a violation of Morris' heavily codified vision, which made room, amid the scores of Cezannes and Renoirs, for a token sample of African masks and sculptures, but nothing more.
Naturally, one side claims to be arguing from the standpoint of civil rights, the other from established artistic standards. Gibbons' great feat is to reveal the way both are speaking in codes that reflect achingly personal and, yes, limited worldviews. "Put yourself in my place," each urges the audience at the top of long-winded monologues (one of the playwright's more tedious penchants). Yet the two men are so committed to their missions that they fail to acknowledge the possibility of another perspective, something of an irony in an art gallery spilling over with paintings embodying new ways of seeing.
This production of "Permanent Collection," first staged in April by the Robey Theatre Company and Greenway Arts Alliance, represents the start of Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie's plan to offer smaller local theaters a larger home and budget for their work.
It's a valuable, if not terribly exciting, way to inaugurate the program. The play, which is more adept at making important points than offering convincing characters or dialogue, strives nobly to expand awareness of the subtler forms of racism -- the kind that affect the decent and well educated who would never suspect, much less publicly acknowledge, the bias lurking within them.
Laudably, the matter is handled in a way that is far from black and white. Barrow (played as a pallid administrator by Doug Cox) isn't prone to doubting his own egalitarian spirit, even when others try to explain the punishing narrowness of his brand of elitism. But North (a powerful if somewhat too oratorical Ben Guillory) is constrained by his own bitterness as a man who, no matter how high he rises in society, still gets pulled over for no reason by the police. Gibbons may not draw his characters with much fine detail, but he gets their anger right.
If you're wondering whether this is a two-hander, it isn't -- but it just as well could be. The other characters include North's black assistant (LaFern Watkins), who falls victim to both men; a troublemaking reporter (Kiersten Morgan), who could be the nail in the coffin of contemporary journalism if she were at all believable; and the ghost of Alfred Morris (Kent Minault), whose excision from the play would hardly register.
The unobtrusive staging by director Dwain Perry is notable mainly for the lovely canvases -- masterpiece knockoffs that could probably fetch a pretty penny -- festooning a set designed by James Eric and Victoria Bellocq.
But nothing in the production, visually or dramatically, is allowed to interfere with the collision of ideas. If the complexity on display is more admirable than deeply involving, at least we're free of the sentimentality and phony rhetoric that typically accompany such discussion. Imagine someone being called a bigot, and no one being distracted by beside-the-point tears?
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays;
2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Feb. 12
Price: $20 to $40
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes