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Review of ‘An Unbuilt Life’ at Washington Stage Guild

JC Payne portrays Scott Bertram, David Bryan Jackson takes on the role of Paul Carmichael, and Susan Holliday embodies Agatha Ganner.

Many fine art pieces harbor a secret history. The beauty captured within the artwork conceals a trail of enigmatic past owners, whose pursuits of such beauty may have been tinged with horror. It is estimated that over 100,000 artworks looted by the Nazis remain unrecovered, lost amidst the confusion and turmoil of history. “An Unbuilt Life,” a play making its world premiere at the Washington Stage Guild, unveils this hidden narrative and poses the question of whether the unwitting possessors of stolen art can claim moral integrity.

Agatha, portrayed by Susan Holliday, leads a life of sophistication and opulence as the widow of David Ganner, a renowned art dealer in New York. As assessors prepare to auction off his collection, a young art student named Scott (played by JC Payne) stumbles upon a piece incorrectly attributed to de Hooch, which had been kept separate from the rest of the collection. Together, Scott and Agatha embark on a quest to uncover the true artist behind the painting, only to unravel its dark past as one of the pieces looted by the Nazis. Determined to reunite the artwork with its rightful owners, Agatha delves deeper into the mystery, unearthing unsettling revelations about her art collection and her late husband.

The play sets the stage for a gripping mystery, skillfully blending elements of philosophy and suspense to create a tense and human drama. Agatha and Scott form a compelling investigative duo reminiscent of Holmes and Watson, combining Scott’s industry knowledge with Agatha’s unconventional problem-solving approach. While the investigation drives the plot, the essence of the play lies in its exploration of our connection to art and our moral obligations towards those from whom it was wrongfully taken. Elizabeth Deschryver’s script delves into profound philosophical themes, particularly compelling when the characters confront the repercussions of choosing the morally right path. The character of Paul Carmichael (portrayed by David Bryan Jackson) adds a layer of complexity as a cynical art dealer who sheds light on the harsh realities of the art world’s demands on those striving to uphold ethical standards. This moral dilemma faced by a character unprepared for its implications gives rise to captivating drama.

Like many new works, the script grapples with pacing issues, with early scenes weighed down by excessive exposition. While the later scenes gain momentum, the repetitive nature of key arguments hampers the unfolding tension, a flaw that could be addressed through further refinement. The direction by Steven Carpenter is meticulous, focusing on elucidating the script’s intricate details. Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.’s set design, though pragmatic, captures attention with its elegant decor and art pieces, enhancing the play’s central themes.

Despite its pacing challenges, the production offers a thought-provoking experience. Treading delicately on the subject of Nazi looting, Deschryver’s script navigates nuanced territory with finesse, steering clear of didacticism or aloofness. “An Unbuilt Life” triumphs in weaving a gripping narrative that melds philosophy and mystery, where lesser scripts might have faltered.

The play runs for two hours with one intermission and is recommended for ages 14 and above due to its detailed exploration of sensitive topics such as the Holocaust, racism, and homophobia.

Catch “An Unbuilt Life” until May 5, 2024, at the Washington Stage Guild’s Undercroft Theatre, located at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20001.