Like all good plays ‘about’ an issue, Thomas de Angelis’ Unfinished Works is simultaneously about and not about art. While it also, certainly, covers being an artist, making art, and delves into issues of artistic integrity, honesty, and the entire history of Western art’s habit of celebrating Big Name Artists over the content or substance of their work, Unfinished Works is also a story about parents and children, about growing up and leaving the nest, about friendship, relationships, and about people connecting with each other.
Produced by Bontom and playing in the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre, Unfinished Works is about an artist, Frank Ralco, who has been commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art and has two weeks remaining in which to complete the piece. After a meeting with a builder-cum-property developer, and still unable to paint, Ralco forms a friendship with Isabel, an aspiring artist, and the two hatch a plan to test the power of their art, and change the course of their lives.
Charles Davis’ set of wooden panels is at once empty and full – by turn a studio, a well-off mansion, and an empty warehouse as the occasion arises, with barely anything more than a change of lights to signify this. Perhaps like Ralco, the artist in de Angelis’ play, we are always under scrutiny, always being exhibited whether we like it or not, and the set cleverly evokes this in a subtle way. Directed by Clemence Williams, there is a hum beneath the surface of this new play, a hum of ideas, of passions, of ideals and a desire to be honest with yourself, your critics, your audiences, with those closest to you. Williams’ direction is fluid – characters sometimes appear in the background of preceeding scenes before their next scene starts, and two physically separate spaces often exist within the same moment on stage, juxtaposed against each other – and there is a precision and economy to her staging, an attention to detail which is often overlooked by more experienced directors.
Williams’ cast are very strong, and there is a thrilling moment about halfway through when the cast of five find themselves on stage together as fireworks start going off. Lucy Goleby plays Frank Ralco, and there is something affecting about her performance –despite the brusque exterior, there is a passionate and moving examination of having traded integrity for fame, and at what price; moving through cynicism, fear, doubt, and defiance, towards something akin to calmness, Goleby’s portrayal is honest and tangible. Contessa Treffone’s Isabel is perhaps a little too naïve and star-struck at first, but as she grows her wings and as her friendship with Ralco grows, so too does her strength and conviction, and her confrontation with her parents is both moving and angry in a heartbeat. As Isabel’s parents, there is a down-to-earth quality to Rhett Walton’s performance as her dad, at the same time as he defies the ethical status-quo he tries to uphold. Deborah Galanos, as Isabel’s mother, is very much conscious of her daughter’s standing in life and is determined to see her get ahead, but at what price? The contrast between Walton and Galanos’ performances is well-handled, and even though they seem to come from different places, they eventually come together in a poignant moment of reconciliation, realisation, and letting go. Kyle Kazmarzik, as Frank’s agent Jimmy, is volatile and very much wears his reactions on his sleeve, and he offers some lighter moments in the play’s proceedings, but underneath his somewhat comedic exterior is a deeper sense of having betrayed his artistic integrity, and simultaneously Frank’s integrity and friendship, but at what cost?
Recalling other plays ‘about’ art – such as Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, John Logan’s Red, and Yasmina Reza’s Art – de Angelis’ play does not give answers so much as make us think about them. And while the play is full of smart and clever ideas – combining strands of contemporary architecture, art-making, the culture of art, and the celebration of artists as commodities or quantifiable products – some of the strands get left behind or aren’t explored as fully as they could be. And while this doesn’t hamper the overall production, it does perhaps leave us with more questions about the work than about the questions it poses.