Off-Broadway Review: Bated Breath Theatre Company’s “Beneath the Gavel” at 59E59 Theaters

Off-Broadway Review: Bated Breath Theatre Company's “Beneath the Gavel” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed Sunday April 9, 2017)
Written and Directed by Mara Lieberman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

When one visits an art museum and stands in front of a painting – let us say Jeff Koons’s “Woman in Tub” – one reacts in one of perhaps three ways: the visitor “likes, just likes it” and snaps a digital image and moves on to another contemporary artist; the visitor pauses for some time and examines the work, deciding what to feel or to think about Mr. Koons; or the visitor dislikes the piece and makes a hasty retreat from woman, tub, and all things Koons. A visit to “Beneath the Gavel” currently running at 59E59 Theaters elicits a similar reaction.

Upon entering the theater, Stewart (Sean Hinkle) instructs the patron to “check in” at the registration desk before being seated. After being asked whether one is “pre-registered,” the patron is asked to select a pair of “auction glasses” and a bidding paddle. Obviously, the audience is going to be bidding on art during “Beneath the Gavel.” If registered, the patron is given a red envelope stuffed with “play money;” if not registered, the patron will be able to “catch” or pick up off the floor play money shot (literally) from gun-like devices with such force the edges of the bills could slice a patron’s face. This is the point it would be good to make a hasty retreat from the theater.

If one decides to stay and “examine” Mara Lieberman’s work, one is subjected to a convoluted “lesson” on the art of making a deal in the “art world” including inside secrets about art auctions from auctioneer Tracey (Missy Burmeister) and her cohorts and comments (in the second act) from contemporary artists and art aficionados. And all of this is embedded in the less than engaging storyline about Haddie Weisenberg (Debra Walsh) and her collection of works by young artist Daniel Zeigler (Corey Finzel).

Although the fictional account of artist and his subject has some moments of fun and “mocking” the art world can be the subject of a play, the effort does not coalesce here in “Beneath the Gavel.” The piece is perplexing and overwrought and the dizzying dance of actors climbing ladders and bouncing on trampolines simply does not add anything to the weak dramatic arc.

Early in “Beneath the Gavel,” Tracey presides over Auction #1, the sale of Daniel Zeigler’s “Woman of Troy” with the help of Charlotte (Moira O’Sullivan) taking phone bids, Geoff (Gabriel Aprea) spotting bids, and Stewart who sets up the easel. After the auction (one of three mock auctions in the play), Tracey asks the audience, “Did you feel the rush? You felt it. Didn’t you?” There was no rush and Ms. Burmeister’s Tracey quickly ad libs, “Well there certainly was a rush when you were grabbing the money off the floor.” The actor could not have been more astute in her observation: there was more interest in scooping up play money from the floor than there was interest in what was happening on stage.

The “bidders” leave the “auction house” having not seen a play, having not been at an art auction, and having learned little about the ins and outs of the world of contemporary art. The riff leaves one a bit miffed.