LOU'S VIEWS: At IMA, the shape of things that came

March 16, 2009
This week, the IMA celebrates design, the IRT attempts a rewritten French farce, and the Phoenix puts its stamp on "Mauritius."

Interactivity is a buzzword in museums today. But, for me, the best exhibition interactivity doesn't come through carefully placed computer kiosks, you-try-it activities or seek-and-find activity pages.

It happens when you see a painting, a sculpture or some other object that demands that you stop and stare. And think. And feel. And struggle with how to fit it into your view of the world.

I stopped, and stopped, and stopped again while happily working my way through the Indianapolis Museum of Art's new exhibition, "European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century." And my pleasure in it came not just from the seemingly endless parade of fascinating, smile-inducing and occasionally baffling objects. It also came from my belief — a belief that grew stronger with the turn of each corner — that this show will be looked back on as a turning point for the IMA. Because this major effort felt like more than just another well-orchestrated showcase for significant work, but also a step into territory not already well-covered elsewhere. With it, the IMA attempts something new and significant. And succeeds.

I fully expect that, with subsequent visits, I'll be stopped by different work. But on my first visit, I was struck strongest by the pieces that came closest to a balance of functionality and form. That meant rolling my eye a bit at Mathias Bengtsson's tangled-Slinky-like "C8 Spun Carbon" chaise lounge and Marc Newson's "Orgone" aluminum chair (ouch) while falling for David Huycke's more unassuming "Bolrond 3" bowl, Pia Törnell's iron "Arcus" candlestick, and Erwan and Rowan Bouroullec's "Sans Titre" single-bud angled vases.

And while Maarten Baas' "Your Best Courtesy Occhiomagico Kitchen Mate!" knife block may win the most-attention-getting prize, it's the simplicity and elegance of many of the others — including Javier Mariscal's "Liria" toilet brush and holder pairings — that, for me, were the most inspiring. I look forward to going back. Soon.

In Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of "The Ladies Man," Max Robinson's hair deserves a Best Supporting Actor award for its flippant performance that seems to pay homage to the coif of Peter O'Toole in his prime. The hard-working guy underneath the hair, playing a doctor trying to cover up what seems to be marital infidelity, works gamely as well, finding a fun world-weariness as the requisite lies and misunderstandings spin out of control. Unfortunately, the show itself is something of a sham, pretending to be a 19th-century French farce but actually a drastically rewritten and reconstituted contemporary take (by Charles Morey) on elements from Georges Feydeau's rarely staged comedies. The result is smirky without being sexy (What is it about the IRT that drains the sexual energy from just about everything?) and sometimes funny but just as often flailing. In a good farce, the audience should be able to clearly read the intent and understanding of each of the characters (See Beef & Boards' handling of less-respected material each January). The comedy doesn't come just from slamming doors, but also from our knowledge of what each character is thinking and experiencing. The collision of their skewered perspectives is what brings the bulk of the laughs. It doesn't work when, as often happens here, there's little commitment to anchoring behavior in honest motivations. When that happens, fun gives way to exhaustion.

The Phoenix Theatre left me with a similar sense of audience fatigue. Here, though, the genre is thriller. Or, rather, thriller grafted onto family drama.

Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" concerns two half-sisters fighting over inherited stamps and a trio of men trying to acquire the valuable little rectangles. You'd never know these were multimillion-dollar objects, though, if you saw how sloppily they are handled by all involved. Some of this is the playwright's fault. She foolishly puts the stamps at risk any number of times in difficult-to-believe ways. The actors compound the problem by being more than ready to tear open the stamp album, lick their fingers before turning pages, and otherwise sloppily handle the objects that would cause the lowest of lottery ticket buyers to say, "Really?" If the playwright, the director and the company care so little about the central prize, why should we?

Further, we never get a clear sense of heroine Jackie (Allison Moody), so it's difficult to follow her wild mood swings. As her snooty sister, Jamison Kay Garrison's vagueness increases as the stakes rise. And Rock Mers is completely miscast as the central villain (played by Ben Kingsley in the show's Broadway production). Listening to his potentially riveting second-act monologue feels like being lectured by a substitute teacher trying to fill time before the bell.

There are moments here — and some interesting stamp trivia posted on the way into the theater — but when I saw it, the show had yet to congeal. A great play can sometimes coast in a mediocre production. An OK play needs more.
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