It's 1947, and Jackson Pollock, not yet famous as either a rebel artist or a hopeless drunk, is standing over a just-finished painting in his rural Long Island studio. The work is the artist's first using a new attack: He spreads his canvas on the floor and splashes paint onto it in frenetic bursts of swirls and splotches.
His wife, Lee Krasner, is studying the piece as Pollock studies her, anxiously waiting her reaction. Krasner believes it's a work of genius, but hesitantly asks the famously tempestuous artist what he thinks: "I feel pretty good about it, actually." Apparently there was a softer side to Pollock -- or at least that's what Hyacinth Theater Company supposes in its new production, "Fifteen Rounds With Jackson Pollock." As Pollock, Ian LeValley does his share of shouting and stumbling, but he is also rather cheerful. And, when paid a compliment, he's prone to giving his admirer a playful, aw-shucks push.
Add to that a slumped posture and slightly fey mannerisms such as tucking a limp hand barely inside his paint-spattered jeans pocket, and LeValley's Pollock is quite a departure from the more popular characterization of the artist as seething iconoclast. "Fifteen Rounds," in fact, implies that Pollock's image was engineered as a gimmick for a Life magazine photo shoot.
"Fifteen Rounds," written by local author Bruce Clarke, is a mostly compelling history that begins with the completion of Pollock's first "drip" painting (a designation he resisted, preferring the term "poured"). The play is set in Pollock's barn studio and in New York art galleries -- though the paint-cans-and-canvases decor of the Warehouse Theater stage never changes. The script chronicles Pollock's rise as an art celebrity, his worsening alcoholism and the disintegration of his marriage.
At 21/4 hours with intermission, "Fifteen Rounds" isn't a breezy sit. Pollock was known as an "action painter," but Clarke's play is dialogue-driven. Long scenes in which Pollock is working alone, circling a canvas and at times literally climbing the walls as he talks to himself, seem trimmable, but perhaps they help re-create an artistic process in which a few moments of creativity may be preceded by hours of torturous gestation.
Also irritating is Kerri Rambow's endless gushing as Krasner. Though she had artistic ambition herself, Krasner devoted most of her energy to supporting her husband's creative risk-taking. Rambow, who is married to LeValley, endows Krasner with a quiet tenderness that is all the more devastating near play's end, when Pollock's drinking and depression alienate even his No. 1 cheerleader.
A solid supporting cast includes Paul MacWhorter as critic Clement Greenberg, Frank Britton as photographer Hans Namuth, and William C. Cook as Pollock-nemesis-turned-drinking-buddy Willem De Kooning. "Fifteen Rounds" is also occasionally marred by silly dialogue -- such as Pollock's "Move over, Picasso, it's a whole new ballgame!" Clarke and the Hyacinth crew's portrait of the artist may not be pitch-perfect, but with its thought-provoking theories on the fickleness of fame, the nature of creativity and, especially, the bitchiness of the art world, "Fifteen Rounds" gets the big picture right.
Fifteen Rounds With Jackson Pollock, by Bruce Clarke. Directed by Delia Taylor. Lighting, Lawson Earl; original music, Michael John Kapler and Ian Monro. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Aug. 8 at Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-783-3933.