MUSEUM by Tina Howe; directed by Leonard Peters; scenery and lighting by Hugh Lester; costumes by Julie Weiss; with a cast of 18.
At the Terrace Theatre through Nov. 16.
For the next three weeks, the stage of the Terrace Theater will be doing double duty as a room of the "American Museum of Art," where three modern artists are on display:
First, Zachery Moe, the "extraordinary young Post-Conceptual painter" who uses acrylic emulsion and wax to create blank white canvases, each 96 1/2 x 120 inches large. To the uninitiated, one Moe may look rather like another, but nothing could be further from the truth, as the titles -- "Landscape I," "Seascape VII," "Starscape 19," etc. -- make clear.
Then there is Agnes Vaag, creator of "The Temptation and Corruption of William Blake" and "The Holy Wars of Babylon Rage Through the Night." These, and indeed, all the Vaags -- small rocky, hairy sculptures -- are made of "found objects" from Connecticut state parks.
And lastly there is Steve Williams, who once specialized in "animal heads in cement" but has moved on to "totemic imagery." His latest work, "Wet Dream Left Out to Dry," is a series of human figures hung on a clothesline. One of them seems to be Jackie Kennedy in full bridal gear. Another resembles Clark Kent. Still another is the painter himself, in a crimson plastic flight jacket.
Moe, Vaag and Williams have their own creator -- playwright Tina Howe, who delights in turning public places into satiric plays. Last year a gourmet restaurant became "The Art of Dining," and now a museum has become "Museum," which the Folger Theatre Group is presenting as one of two annual offerings at the Kennedy Center.
Howe has an awesome comic imagination, and clearly she has spent time in an art museum, observing the strange habits of the visitors. So there is much -- including her fictitious artists -- to laugh at in this play (which was first performed in Los Angeles in 1974). But as with "The Art of Dining," the author's wild comic notions seem to cry out for more of a structure than she has been able to give them -- and eventually "Museum" gets bogged down in repetition and recitation.
The central figure is a guard, played by Larry Marshall, who sang and danced his way through last year's "Evolution of the Blues," and is very funny here as he tries to cope with a procession of bizarre visitors who have chosen to inspect the exhibit (collectively titled "The Broken Silence") one particular morning. It happens to be the last day of the exhibit too, when, we are informed, vandals are usually at their worst. So Marshall is constantly (and plaintively saying things like, "Please don't smell the paintings," or "Please don't handle the clothespins."
But before long, things are headed out of control. Visitors are making speeches, suffering nervous breakdowns, jostling the Williamses, massaging the Vaags and scrawling on the Moes left and right. A sense of imminent anarchy is in the air, and the time has come for Howe to move her play -- and her audience -- to somewhere unexpected and enlightening.
She doesn't. Instead, "Museum" aborts its mission and leaves the audience, laughing but yawning, with a series of images and characters, some funny and memorable and some not.
Among the former: Ralph Cosham and Patricia Triana as a French couple in rapturous love with their language; Paul Norwood as a strang man in a gray suit who looks like a lost Smothers brother (and periodically thwacks himself in the chest as if trying to administer cardiac resuscitation); and Elizabeth Sorrow as the inevitable -- but just the same delightful -- little old lady who can't make heads or tails of any of it.
Among the latter: Three different photographers (two too many) who are agressively determined to get the museum director's permission to take pictures; a woman who can't remember the name "Steve Williams" and keeps saying "Steve Stevens" instead; and an effeminate young man whose dialogue seems to consist mostly of newspaper clippings about the financial and security problems of museums.