When I first read that Austin Pendleton was starring in a modest, Off-Off-Broadway production at the 99-seat TBG Theatre, I did a double take. Surely it wasn’t the Austin Pendleton — the legendary actor, playwright, librettist, director, and acting teacher.
The man who in 1981 directed Elizabeth Taylor in “The Little Foxes” (nabbing a Tony nom), the recent, acclaimed “Between Riverside and Crazy,” and scores of other plays in between. The author of “Booth” and “Orson’s Shadow.” The actor who lent his offbeat charisma to the hit movies “Catch-22,” “The Front Page,” “What’s Up Doc,” and “Finding Nemo,” and such TV shows as “Oz” and “Difficult People.” The recipient of a special Drama Desk Award for “Renaissance Man of the American Theatre.”
Indeed, it’s the one and only Austin Pendleton. And he’s perfectly cast as a dissolute, monstrous artist named Paul Harold trying to salvage the remaining scraps of a spotty career in “Consider the Lilies,” a heady, chaotic drama written and directed by Stuart Fail.
Pendleton brings a frantic urgency to Paul, who is so insecure about his latest paintings that he bolts from the opening of his show in a Paris gallery. This stunt does not sit well with his agent, David, who has developed a peculiar crush on his needy client.
Paul, it should be noted, claims he has always been a ravenous bisexual. When he’s not cruelly insulting David, he makes passes at him every chance he gets. He even brings home a swarthy young stranger (Alec Merced) for sex, but he is brutally beaten and robbed.
The 76-year-old veteran actor, who sports a mad-scientist mop of white hair, imparts a wonderfully edgy physicality to the role, adding well-timed, nervous mannerisms like head scratching, arm flailing, and stuffing his hands in pants pockets. He’s constantly shuffling and fidgeting, reflecting Paul’s unsettled mental state.
As David, Eric Joshua Davis does a fine job holding his own opposite Pendleton. Paul accuses David, who claims to be in love with his ex-girlfriend, Angela (Liarra Michelle), of being a closet case. David skirts the issue, though admits that Paul is his “soulmate.” The two men bicker like a married couple.
“We’re lovers without the sex,” says Paul. “It’s all that tension that needs to be released.”
Not that “Consider the Lilies” is concerned only about sexual dynamics. The turgid drama also contemplates the fickleness of the art world, the misery of advancing age, the complexities of parental attachments (in one of many stray plot threads, Angela gets pregnant and David may be the father), suicide, and scads of other topics. All way too much to digest.
Although the play was originally estimated to run two hours including intermission, the night I saw it, the running time was over two and a half hours. Judicious cuts must be made.
The set of Paul’s shabby Paris and New York apartments, by Sara Watson, strikes the right note of sadness and disarray. A forlorn bookcase contains only four books; valuable paintings are carelessly left on the floor.
Also noteworthy is Peter Collier’s turn as Zack, a brash young artist who admits to being influenced by Paul’s most famous painting that features brilliantly melancholy lilies. Collier’s insightful, rambunctious Zack injects a welcome shot of adrenaline into the proceedings.
One question is whether Paul and David will end up as a true couple. Even more pressing is why the overly dedicated David continues to tolerate such a despicable prick.
“I don’t understand why you put up with me,” says Paul. Try as it might, this ambitious enterprise fails to make sense of this knotty relationship. Lucky for us, we are often distracted from the play’s flaws by Pendleton’s eccentric, masterful performance.
CONSIDER THE LILIES | Red House Theatre Company | TBG Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., Third Fl. | Through Jan. 28: Wed.-Sat. at 7 p.m.; Sat., Sun. at 3 p.m. | $18 at BrownPaper