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A Checkered Carrot

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A CHECKERED CARROT

at the Organic Lab Theater

Comedienne Judy Tenuta once toyed with the idea of becoming an artist--until it hit her that you can work for months on a painting, only to have someone stroll by, glance at it, murmur "Hmm, nice," and move along. But no good artist wants only immediate gratification; in the long run most will settle for seeing a work be judged by the standards of its own creation (just ask Georges Seurat's great-grandson in Sunday in the Park With George). Instead of twisting their vision of that work into somebody else's idea of a "movement," and catering to the packaging and marketing whims of dealers, buyers, and critics and to incestuous gallery politics, what artists ask is the freedom to make what they want to make, a fair display of the results, and the chance to make a profit on the paint.

Yeah, sure. Take the case of Gary Falkenberg, the rebel without a brain in Kathleen Lombardo's A Checkered Carrot. Trembling with inspiration and talking to his canvases like a mother, Gary seems the epitome of the pure, uncorrupted painter (according to Carrot, a 20th-century rarity); righteously, he puts soul above technique and prefers virtuous obscurity to unearned celebrity. Like his boozing artist father (who killed himself for lack of an audience), Gary is consumed by his work; he despises those artists who sell themselves out to merchandise their wares.

Of course, given this too-good-to-be-true declaration of independence, Carrot can only inventory Gary's inevitable corruption. Reluctantly visiting Walden Gallery with the hope of getting displayed, Gary accidentally destroys another artist's work, is caught in the act by the uninsured dealer, George Walden, and suddenly finds himself facing $3,000 in damages plus lawyers' fees. The effete and sinister Walden, a former furniture salesman, offers Gary a way out: he likes his wild and crazy look and wants to build a piece of performance art around him (he calls it a "rite of passage" necessary before Gary can move on to actually exhibiting his art). Perhaps in a few years, Walden hints, he may give the Falkenberg canvases a retrospective of their own, if . . .

With flattery and a loan, Walden lines up Gary's girlfriend Sandy, a commercial artist who dabbles in stained glass. Sandy pleads Walden's case, but as the first act ends Gary refuses to become any art dealer's performing seal.

But clearly a lot happened during the intermission. Unbelievably, we never see the Faustian moment when Falkenberg capitulates. Instead, as the second act begins, Gary, already notorious for his media-savvy exhibitionism, is riding the talk show trail like a trouper. Without ever looking at his paintings, Walden (who thinks painting is passe anyway) is promoting Gary like the second coming (and, not at all incidentally, touting his no-longer-failing gallery as well). Together, dealer and duper create an imaginary critic and phony catalogs that hype Falkenberg with puffs like "Nothing is more real than nothing" (which, of course, like the emperor's new clothes, is exactly what this devious duo is offering).

Meanwhile, Gary is wooing the media (there's an insulting reference to Alan Artner--not of the Sun-Times but the Tribune--which implies that this fine critic somehow got suckered into Walden's transparent scam). By now, Sandy, who unwittingly introduced Gary to this massive sellout, is repelled by the results. But it's too late now. Despite his one-man sound-and-light show, Gary--who hasn't painted in months--will never get exhibited. Our last glimpse shows the ex-artist limply posing as Christ in agony, with Italian lights strung through his crown of thorns and garish slide projections flickering around him. (According to this play, performance art is the lowest form of creativity.)

Lombardo's multitargeted indictment of the contemporary art scene may feel correct in its details (and it's colorful, with interesting mixed-media artworks by Donna Stoneman, Susan Attea, Rebecca Fischer, and Beth Turk). But as a play, Carrot is elaborately wrong, weak, and ultimately unfair to everyone it pretends to discuss--artists, dealers, performance artists, and critics.

The biggest problem is Lombardo's fraudulent Falkenberg. To start with, we're offered no evidence he is a good artist so we don't care when he sells out. What we do see is a gratuitously hostile, self-important flake, not an exuberant rascal-artist like Joyce Cary's wonderful Gulley Jimson in The Horse's Mouth but a terminally naive, shallow, self-righteous loser who leaps and lives from extreme to extreme. Nothing is easier for Gary than the jump from untested purity to unquestioning self-adulteration, from holy hermit to Andy Warhol. In real life nothing is harder. Using two of the cheapest forms of character development, Lombardo has Gary talk to himself or suddenly burst into unfunny put-downs of his supposed enemies. Worst of all, once Gary sells out, he hasn't a single regret; if this guy was so ripe for prostitution, why bother with him at all?

As directed by L.M. Attea, Don Bender worsens the schizoid stereotype by playing Gary with an eerie, forced, hair-tossing intensity, as if always on the edge of an overdue nervous breakdown. Not for one moment does Bender settle into anything approaching reality; but then the guy's working from a script where all the colors are black and white.

The second problem is Lombardo's very un-Thoreauvian George Walden (no doubt the philosophical opposite of Lombardo herself, who directs the Wellington Art Market on Broadway). A slimy piece of meretricious opportunism who'd make a snake-oil peddler blush and who'll claim a 60 percent commission without a qualm, Walden is a painter's nemesis come to not life but caricature. He exists only as bogeyman (though Lombardo, perhaps in awareness that her character's a gay grotesque, grants him one tender moment when, addressing his unseen lover Francis, Walden seems to recognize his life as a parasite).

Lester Palmer plays Walden with an oily unctuousness even Franklin Pangborn would have slipped on; on opening night only Palmer's shaky line readings kept Walden from succumbing to total unhumanity. Though Sandy lurches from complicity with Walden to an unmotivated return to virtue, Val Fashman plays Gary's thankless conscience with a determined through line missing everywhere else in this heavy-handed hodgepodge.

Sad to say one stanza of Sondheim's "Putting It Together" (or Kent Broadhurst's one-act The Habitual Acceptance of the Near Enough, excellently staged by the Next Theatre Company in 1985) says more about the threats to artistic integrity than anything in this indigestible Checkered Carrot.

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