A bravura lead performance by Matt Marquez as early 20th Century artist Amedeo Modigiliani and electric support by Nicole Stuart as his partner in art and sex are the two best reasons to catch Open Fist Theatre and Amedeo Production’s revival of Dennis McIntyre’s Modigliani.

 Marquez stars as Italian painter-sculptor Amedeo Clemente Modigliani, whom McIntyre presents to us over a period of three days in 1916 Paris—only a few years before the artist’s death at age thirty-five from a combination of TB, poverty, overwork, and alcohol and drug addiction. Though today you might pay $30,000,000 for a Modigliani, during his short lifetime the painter was lucky if he got a hundred Francs for one of them. Clearly, “Modi” Modigliani fits smack dab into the box reserved for tormented, unappreciated geniuses, making him an ideal subject for a biodrama. Andy Garcia played Modigliani on the silver screen back in 2004. McIntyre’s play precedes that film by three decades.

It’s easy to see why actors crave playing characters like Modi and his English mistress, poet Beatrice Hastings. The couple’s scenes together crackle with a sexual and emotional intensity that requires an actor to travel unashamedly to his or her darkest, deepest places and to express a physical and emotional intimacy that most of us would prefer reserving for a more private venue than a 99-seat theater stage where audience members sit almost close enough to reach out and touch.

In fact, this Bjørn Johnson-directed production came about as the result of a scene performed by Marquez and Stuart in Johnson’s acting class that proved so impressive that a fully staged production seemed the next logical step.

Whenever Marquez and Stuart are on stage together, Modigliani takes flight. Still, the overall impression left at the final curtain is of a production of jarringly uneven tones, a mood set from the play’s opening minutes.

 We first glimpse Modigliani being thrown through the window of an expensive Right Bank restaurant, threatening voices heard from within as Modi stumbles to his feet, a scene so sudden and brief as to provoke reactions of “What just happened?” before the lights go back up on a pair of drunken, quarreling painters in a scene that plays right out of a Marx Brothers movie.

Artists Maurice Utrillo aka “Maumau” (Daniel Escobar) and Chaim Soutine (Nasser Khan) are about as blotto as two men can be without passing out, an acting challenge which Escobar manages more successfully than Khan, but in both cases, the slurring and lurching and voice raising and exchange of insults is played so over the top that what might work in a Jim Carrey flick fares considerably less successfully when intended to be taken seriously. Though Escobar’s performance later attains real poignancy, for much of the play, Utrillo and Soutine, two apparently talented artists, seem to have wandered in from Drunk And Drunker, a disconnect from the reality Marquez and Stuart bring to their roles that continues throughout Modigliani whenever the two alcoholics are onstage.

Peter Lewis and Jon Collin Barclay fare better in their roles as art dealers Leopold Zborowski and Guillaume Cheron, the former a staunch supporter of Modi’s work, the latter less convinced that the painter’s canvases are worth anything but a pittance. Both actors have the great good fortune of playing their scenes opposite Marquez, and though Barclay seems a tad young to be playing a dealer of apparently considerable repute, both of them give grounded, reality-based performances. Ruben Gomes appears briefly as a waiter.

 Still, if ever a production could be said to “belong” to two actors, Modigliani is that production. Marquez won a Scenie for his star turn as Hal in last year’s Proof, a performance about which I wrote, “There is an immediacy in Marquez’s work that makes it absolutely real, a spontaneity that can be honed in an acting class but is ultimately the gift of a truly natural talent.” The same holds true for his fiery work as Modigliani, a role he brings to life with a raw intensity and oodles of charisma and sex appeal.

Stuart, whose role as Catherine’s take-charge sister in Proof scarcely skimmed the surface of her talents, is a revelation here as a woman whose feline ferocity belies any notion of British reserve, and when Stuart and Marquez are going at it hot and heavy, don’t be surprised if the theater’s smoke alarm sounds in response.

Scenic designer Zachary B. Guiler has so skillfully modified his set for the concurrently running Early And Often that you’d think the combination artist’s studio/Parisian bar was created specifically for Modigliani. Sammy Ross’s lighting design is equally effective as is Jeff Polunas’s sound design. Anthony Tran’s costumes have a just-right, weathered period look. Kudos go also to prop master Tamara Becker for assorted bar and studio paraphernalia.

Modigliani is produced by Thrill Ride Productions. Caitlin R. Campbell is producer, Andrew Law master electrician, and Julianne Figueroa stage manager.

With its convenient Tuesday through Thursday performance schedule, Modigliani offers a break from most plays’ Friday and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00 schedules. Though neither play nor production attain the heights reached by the two star players, Marquez and Stuart’s work makes Modigliani worth checking out, particularly for those in the mood for a weeknight theater fix.

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 9, 2012
Photos: Ehrin Marlow

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