Al Schnupp’s new play about Peggy Guggenheim, “The Collection,” is a touring production that slipped into town for one performance July 24 at 1821 Gallery & Studios. I wanted to catch it because it’s an original play (always a plus) in a site-specific location (which can be a lot of fun).
I’m glad I went. Often fascinating, the play offers an intriguing look at a woman who was rich, eccentric, scandalous and enormously astute at snapping up the works (and sometimes the affections) of many of the 20th century’s great modern artists. Schnupp, a theater professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who brought current and former students along as the cast, offers a fresh take both on Guggenheim and also the way he structures her story on stage.
But while it has some compelling moments, this ambitious production also disappoints in a way that biographical pieces often do: It’s rich in the details of a life but struggles to find a compelling emotional arc and conflict. As a compendium of fascinating information it succeeds, but as a piece of theater it remains stubbornly inert.
Starting in the early 1920s, the Guggenheim – niece of the industrialist Solomon Guggenheim – turned a substantial inheritance into a prominent collection of modern art. Written in a series of 34 vignettes covering the socialite’s life from teen years to her 70s, the play offers snippets of her outsized personality, stormy marriage, distracted motherhood, multiple love affairs and – most of all – her keen and sometimes lusty connections with such artists as Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst.
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That’s a lot to fit into a 90-minute drama, but Schnupp adds yet another ingredient to the recipe: He structures the play using reproductions of paintings as a core element of each vignette. His crisp design for the show, meant to accommodate a tour of one-night stands, consists of three swiveling easels in which works related to the artist inspiring each vignette are featured. (You can even see a little into the backstage area, which is a little like looking at an art museum’s storage facility.)
Schnupp as director handles each vignette and the numerous transitions fluidly. But the structure forced Schnupp as playwright into crafting sometimes awkward moments of introductory prose as characters set each scene for the audience in terms of setting, time period, etc.
More than procedural clunkiness, the play feels too locked into Schnupp’s rigid structure, which never allows more than a few minutes at any one time with Guggenheim (Jaide Whitman, who handles the role nicely) and the deft supporting cast (Ryan Austin, Daniel Cook and Ellen Eves) playing multiple roles.
The result: scattered impressions of a character that never get fleshed into someone with whom I could connect. A flurry of characters and relationships fly by but don’t stick. Schnupp plays up Guggenheim’s sexual and social eccentricities – and I don’t blame him for it, because she was quite a live wire – but then also feels obligated to tie in each brief scene to the artist and artwork featured. Art history trumps theater. I never got a real feel for Guggenheim other than she was somewhat crass and mean. And I struggled to figure out why she was so good at being a patron and collector.
This is an example of a case when a one-person project – director, writer and designer all rolled into one – might have benefitted from a collaborator, someone to step back and say: We’ve gotten too enamored of a gimmick and lost sight of what the core human story of the play is. (To me, that core would be: a woman who loves art.)
There’s a lot of potential here, but Schnupp needs to find the soul of the woman who intrigues him. Instead of “The Collection,” I’d be more interested in “The Collector.”