"The Murals of Rockefeller Center" is a thoroughly engaging new collaborative work by members of the Irondale Ensemble Project and its artistic director Jim Niesen, who also directs the play. It can be seen at the Theater for a New City in the East Village through May 18.
Irondale is a 20-year-old company with roots in improvisation, method acting techniques, and material designed to bring about social change. "Murals" is the nearly forgotten story of entrenched capitalism vs. free artistic expression that was played out in New York in 1933 and 1934.
This proves a rich theatrical resource for a company dedicated to social relevance, and Irondale makes the most of it. Frenetic, zany acting, at a far remove from naturalistic acting as possible, is the order of the day and adds to the pervasive satirical mood of "Murals," a work that has been three years in the making.
The action is dominated by the Mexican artist Rivera, played with great élan by Sven Miller as a paradoxical personality, instinctively sharp but basically naïve when operating outside his hermetic artistic world. He is a born revolutionary, a onetime leader of the Mexican Communist Party, and a friend of the exiled Russian Bolshevik Leon Trotsky.
He is also the husband of artist Frida Kahlo, another icon of Mexican art, less convincingly played by Patrena Murray, whose acting seems superficial compared with Miller's enthusiastic grasp of his role. Murray, like all other members of the cast except Miller, plays multiple roles that sometimes are confusing to the audience when not clearly identified.
Oil-rich John D. Rockefeller Jr. (Michael-David Gordon) and his sons Nelson (Jack Lush) and John D. III (Josh Bacher) are intent on increasing their family fortune by getting into Manhattan real estate development. They are in the process of making a run-down midtown area west of Fifth Avenue, leased from Columbia University, into an entertainment and office building complex.
Matisse (Lush) and Picasso (Bacher) are considered to paint the murals to decorate the entrance lobby of the RCA building, which anchors the project, but they turn the Rockefellers down and Rivera, who has had commissioned for murals in San Francisco and Detroit, is selected for the job of painting a central mural. He signs a contract saying he will depict important historical personalities in the work.
The Rockefellers are horrified when they discover Rivera's mural -- fully reproduced for this production -- is Marxist inspired, depicting workers taking over the means of industrial production, and includes a portrait of Lenin, first head of the Soviet Union, as one of the historical figures.
Rivera art first refuses to replace Lenin with another, more acceptable figure, such as Lincoln, but even after he agrees, the Rockefellers order the offending mural blasted from the wall with air hammers, to be replaced by Fascist-inspired murals by Spanish artist Jose Maria Sert, Francisco Franco's ambassador to Italy, then ruled by Benito Mussolini whom John D. Jr. admired. The Sert murals are still in place.
As Diego tells the story, he weaves other stories into the play, summoning up such legendary figures as flier Charles A. Lindbergh (Bacher) and gangster John Dillinger (Lush) for examination as hero and anti-hero in American society. Other characters depicted are Lindbergh's wife Anne (Missy Jayme), and her father, Dwight Morrow (Gordon), who was ambassador to Mexico and commissioned Rivera's famous Cuernavaca murals.
Other cameo roles include George Gershwin, Will Rogers, Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford, Clark Gable, Ben Shawn and New Jersey State Police Col. Norman Schwarzkopf, an important figure in the prosecution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann as the kidnaper of the Lindbergh baby and father of the famous Desert Storm general, played by Damen Scranton.
Ken Rothschild's set of metallic platforms, one of which extends into the audience, recalls the catwalks erected for Rivera to work on in the RCA building and is imaginatively lit by Randy Glickman. T. Michael Hall's costumes are true to the period but are strictly low budget.
A three-member jazz ensemble accompanies the play with 1930s standards and specially written music by Walter Thompson.