In the world premiere of “Bauer,” a San Francisco Playhouse commission, local playwright Lauren Gunderson constructs layers of edgy, fraught dialogue to probe a real-life mystery at the heart of the drama: Why did German-born artist Rudolf Bauer (1889-1953), a pioneer of nonobjective abstract art, stop painting after signing a contract with art collector Solomon Guggenheim that would promise all his future work to Guggenheim’s new museum?
Set in the artist’s studio in New York (evocatively rendered by Bill English to represent Bauer’s troubled state of mind) a decade after he abandoned his paintbrushes, and shortly before he would die from lung cancer, the play imagines Bauer receiving a visit from his former longtime lover, the aristocratic and manipulative German firebrand Hilla Rebay (an emotionally full, carefully calibrated performance by Stacy Ross).
Bauer’s devoted Austrian wife, Louise (a focused, straightforward Susi Damilano in a fetching long braid), is an equally forceful presence.
That love triangle provides plenty of fuel for Gunderson to explore the sometimes-fragile nature of the artistic impulse, the moral obligations of the artist, the significance of art and art-making, and the convoluted relationships that can foster or block the artist’s singular spirit.
Gunderson keeps us interested in Bauer’s complicated past (imprisoned by the Gestapo in the late 1930s, he continued to sketch) and his current creative impasse, as well as his conflicted feelings about the two women who love him and are hounding him relentlessly to return to his life’s work, each one with her own agenda.
As Bauer, Belgian actor Ronald Guttman, with longish, silvery hair and glasses, presents the artist as an attractive and brooding figure, someone you can imagine that two women could love forever. Yet in Guttman’s portrayal and Gunderson’s writing, he somehow remains frustratingly elusive.
More egregiously, despite the play’s intriguing theme and characters, the very quantity of words grow wearisome. The women challenge, question, accuse, plead with and hector Bauer so relentlessly that their arguments start to feel circular.
Particularly dazzling, though, is a slide show of Bauer’s colorful, Kandinsky-like artworks, projected onto the background and enhanced, at the play’s climax by Micah J. Stieglitz’s evocative projection designs. The visuals are pure scenic magic and provide extra insight into the artist and his work.
<i>Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. select Sundays; closes April 19
Tickets: $30 to $100
Contact: (415) 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org
Note: “The Realm of the Spirit: A Rudolf Bauer Retrospective” is on view at the Weinstein Gallery, 383 Geary St., S.F., through April 30.