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Art Is Central in Broadway Play About Photographer Larry Sultan

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Ads for Inside, the first feature film by Vasilis Katsoupis, presents the film as a “psychological thriller”. When I saw it, the biggest thrill came in the final credits, where the names of 25 artists and the titles of 38 works share the screen with set-chewing lead Willem Dafoe.

It’s rare to see art co-starring in a movie rather than serving as background scenery. Yet it also happens on Broadway. Pictures of the housea three-character drama at the Studio 54 theater, gives an elemental role to the photographs the late Larry Sultan took of his parents for a seminal book of the same title.

A play based on a book of photographs is not standard Broadway fare, or even an obvious idea. Not before reading the book. Obviously, playwright Sharr White did. The best parts of his screenplay come straight from Sultan’s text, a powerful text that the photographer crafted from recorded interviews with his parents, Irving and Jean, and which blended seamlessly into his photos, home movies and his own thoughts about his father. , the post-war values ​​of his parents, and a medium plagued by issues of exploitation.

How often do we see mainstream culture giving contemporary art the prominence or respect it earns in these two very different productions? Equally encouraging, neither has anything to do with fashion or the art market.

Inside sees Dafoe playing Nemo, a thief trapped in the penthouse he robs. Foiled in his attempt to steal three Egon Schiele drawings by the luxury apartment’s super-smart security system, Dafoe carries on a one-sided conversation with works by Maurizio Cattelan, Joanna Piotrowska and John Armleder, the only witness to his disturbed state. survival.

Imprisoned for months, he feeds on doused water and caviar while engineering an escape by ransacking furniture. At one point, for fun, he puts on a costume from a Petrit Halilaj show. In desperation, he defaces some of the art. Finally, to save his sanity, he creates his own art.

“It was important to give a clear vision of the art as a character because the collection represents the antagonist of Nemo, the invisible collector,” explains Leonardo Bigazzi, a Florence-based curator who curated or commissioned and installed the works. who appear in the film. At significant moments, these works make Nemo cry.

Photographs projected at a colossal scale onto the back wall of the avocado green, California Modern set in Pictures from Home have no game to play. Not with powerhouse actors Nathan Lane and Zoe Wannamaker on hand to play Irv and Jean Sultan. Wannamaker is the spitting image of Jean, but in a play that focuses on Sultan’s contentious relationship with her father, she has little to do.

Sultan’s photos are not formal or candid portraits. They derive from installations the artist has constructed over ten years of visiting his parents in Los Angeles from his home and family in San Francisco. I enjoyed the extended exposure to the footage resulting from their collaboration and Lane’s brave performance. But the portrayal of the artist in the room, by many accounts a cheerful, easy-going guy who thought deeply about photography, was shocking.

Sultan, who died of cancer in 1996, was no nothing (his photo appears in the finale). Yet a horribly miscast Danny Burstein plays Larry as a whiny, clueless shlub who would be unrecognizable to the book’s vulnerable and sensitive author. Sultan wrote that what drove his project was the sunny 1980s fantasy of middle-class “family values” that he attributed to the conservatism of the Reagan years and wanted to confuse, using his own family to counter his delusion. . There is considerable pathos in his father’s situation, but Irv de White berates his son as a loser.

Veteran photography dealer Janet Borden showed this body of work in New York in 1990. “Larry’s parents knew he was a famous photographer,” Borden told me. “He was not a ‘loser’. I have sold many editions of the photographs. Larry was also an influential teacher who knew how to talk to people, and very funny.

Yancey Richardson, whose gallery represents the Sultan’s estate, was puzzled by the omission from the display of his best-known photograph, of his mother, Jean, posing for the camera while a televised ball game absorbs his father (this is currently on view in his gallery.)

Sharr explains, “Because I was studying photographs that had to have a central conflict between Larry and Irv, my mother posing couldn’t be included… What was paramount to me was the conflict, not Larry’s most famous pieces.

And therein lies the problem in these two dramatizations: the question of control – of a destiny, of an image, of a heritage. Fortunately, art runs with it.

Pictures of the houseStudio 54, until April 30; Pictures of the houseYancey Richardson Gallery, until April 8

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