‘Modigliani’ paints moving portrait of tormented artist

An artist’s angst over personal demons and the vicissitudes of the marketplace is depicted with a mixture of humor and pathos in the upcoming revival of “Modigliani” at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood. The story, set in the Montparnasse area of Paris in 1916, covers three days in the life of the celebrated Italian-Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani, who, like numerous other artists, became an icon only after his death. He is particularly noted for his renderings of elongated figures, mask-like faces and erotic nudes.

The play, by the late Dennis McIntyre, was produced off-Broadway at the Astor Place Theatre in 1980, where director Bjørn Johnson saw it when he went to New York as a young actor to study. He was so taken with the material that, years later, he decided to play Modigliani as a project for his acting class in Los Angeles. Now he is helming a professional production of the work for a midweek offering at the Open Fist.

“ ‘Modigliani’ is really the genuine starving-artist story,” Johnson remarked. “He was a guy who was recognized by everybody but just couldn’t get it off the ground.”

He was also recognized for his alcoholism, his addiction to hashish and absinthe, and his womanizing. 

“He was a wild guy,” Johnson said, “very eccentric and so open. And that’s what’s so attractive about the play, what’s so attractive about the characters. What else is attractive to me about the material is that it’s a great acting opportunity. The scenes are detailed, and they’re deep, and they get to completion. They go to very deep places, not all of them dark. But it’s just kind of a great, human opportunity for an actor, and a director.”

Johnson and Matt Marquez — who plays the title role — both say that they, as artists in another medium, can relate to Modigliani’s struggles.  Marquez describes the three days depicted in the play as a particularly crucial point in Modigliani’s life. The artist is burned-out; tired of buyers, collectors and dealers; has not been painting; and wants money to fulfill his fantasy of running away to Martinique.

“He’s somebody who has begun to doubt his own talent,” Marquez explained, “and he has reason for that. He’s basically come to a crisis in his life where he doesn’t know what to do or if he’s made the right choice. So, he’s filled with doubt, like many of us are at times in our lives.”

Marquez added: “What makes it even harder to deal with is the fact that he has tuberculosis and he’s dying. In those three days, he’s struggling to find something of substance in his life and a way back into what he loved so much in his art. He’s uninspired, and he’s trying to find inspiration, and he knows his time is finite. He doesn’t know if he’ll make it to the next day.”

The art world of Modigliani’s day in Paris was teeming with such movements as Cubism, Post-Impressionism, Dadaism and Futurism, among others, but Modigliani didn’t fit the mold. Marquez feels it’s a problem for artists that never changes.

“It has to do with culture and what’s popular and what’s not. They say artists are ahead of their time, but it’s more about everyone else having to catch up. They’re right where they need to be, but everyone else has to catch up,” Marquez said.

“There’s a line where one of the dealers tells my character that there’s no demand for a certain kind of painting that I’m doing, and I say, ‘Demand? But demand can’t change something that’s beautiful.’ And, of course, he rejects what I’ve just said,” Marquez added.

The tragic underpinning of the play is leavened with hilarity, particularly in the characters of Modigliani’s fellow artists Chaim Soutine (Nasser Khan), also Jewish, and Maurice Utrillo (Daniel Escobar).

Utrillo wants Soutine to help him kill his mother’s lover, while Soutine wants assistance in stealing a dead cow so that he can watch the side of beef change and paint the colors that emerge. He worries that they won’t get to the carcass in time. “What if they throw out the beef? Butchers aren’t very sensitive. They don’t understand reds or greens.”

Modigliani, or Modi, as he was called, also has his comedic moments. At one point he explains his injured hand to his agent, Leopold (Jeff Lorch and Peter Lewis,  double-cast), by recounting his escapade in an upscale restaurant that he had entered from the back.  When the staff realized he had drunk two bottles of wine, and probably couldn’t pay, they started chasing him. He describes leaping over tables, stepping in dinners, introducing himself and sampling desserts when he found himself at the table of a French general and his wife.

“And you know what I think about French generals,” he says. He then describes how he dropped his pants and bent over, adding, “And Jews don’t drop their pants on very important generals.”

The fact that Modigliani was Jewish definitely informs the work and is a significant element of the story, according to Johnson.

“I don’t think it’s an isolated thing. I think it ties into his sense of being held outside, of being excluded, of being repressed. And I think it couples with his frustrations. Utrillo is his best friend, and yet he sort of laughingly calls him a Jew bastard and sarcastically calls him a kike. But it definitely ties into the gestalt of the society in which they’re living.” 

Modigliani’s sense of being alienated explodes in the play’s devastating, pivotal scene, which finds him meeting with art dealer Guillaume Chéron (Jon Collin Barclay), who trivializes the artist’s efforts, is disrespectful, dismissive and somewhat contemptuous, offering an insultingly paltry sum for some of the artwork. The dealer says, “You have a talent — but I doubt you’ll ever develop it. You’re good — no — more promising than good, but you’re not that good.”

In reaction, Modigliani goes on a rampage, destroying many of his paintings. His self-destructive behavior finally provokes his mistress and model, Beatrice Hastings (Nicole Stuart), into leaving him.

It seems that Modigliani has nothing left, but then his inner core bursts forth. It is a quintessential expression of tenaciousness, which, for Johnson, is at the heart of this play.

“He’s got so much behind him; he’s got so much fire in his belly; he’s got so much genuine artistic inspiration; and he’s flying in the face of incredible obstacles. He’s got tuberculosis; he’s out of money; he’s in questionable company; he doesn’t have two cents to rub together; he doesn’t have any food; it’s incredibly cold, and it’s raining. He’s got some hard knocks and close calls, and he just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I think the universal theme is tenacity.”

“Modigliani” at the Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90038. 323.882.6912. Mon. April 30 (preview) – Thurs. May 24, 2012. Reservations: https://openfist.secure.force.com/ticket

Gala Opening:
Tuesday, May 1st @ 8pm 
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 8pm

Gala Opening Tickets- $30.00
Preview tickets: $15.00
VIP Tickets $34.00 ~ Includes Wine
Regular tickets $20 ~ Students & Seniors – $15