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An uneven canvas for art and mortality in ‘The Rembrandt’

Ensemble member Francis Guinan (Rembrandt) in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere
production of "The Rembrandt," written by Jessica Dickey and directed by Hallie Gordon. | MICHAEL BROSILOW

Jessica Dickey’s play, “The Rembrandt,” now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, is full of ideas — about art and love, mortality and immortality, and the price paid for either obeying the rules or defying them. It has its inspired moments — most notably when John Mahoney arrives on stage as Homer, the blind bard of ancient Greece whose epic poems on war and its aftermath — “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” — are foundational works of Western civilization that more than likely began as oral storytelling (in some sense “theater”) and were only later put into writing. But this also is a jarringly uneven play that tries too hard to be hip and often ends up undercutting the very meaningful notions it is meant to explore.

‘THE REMBRANDT’

Somewhat recommended

When: Through Nov. 5

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20 – $104

Info: www.steppenwolf.org

Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

And what about Rembrandt, the Old Master whose portraits weave such a hypnotic spell that when you gaze at them you almost begin to feel their subjects breathing? He, too, is part of Dickey’s story, though he fares less well than Homer, even if one of his masterpieces, “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer,” a fabled 1961 purchase by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is at the very core of the play.

In fact, it is the impulse to touch that painting — a work painted in the four colors (black, white, ochre and the darkest red) that Rembrandt favored, and magically was able to illuminate with an almost otherworldly glow — that sets the play in motion. For the story begins as a veteran security guard, Henry (Francis Guinan, just prissy but restrained enough), interacts with the boyish Dodger (Ty Olwin), a brash new hire, who also works as a street artist, and Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), a novice painter who has arrived to try her hand at copying the work, but mostly to overcome her grief at the loss of her grandmother.

Ensemble members John Mahoney (left, as Simon) and Francis Guinan (as Henry) in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere production of “The Rembrandt.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW
Ensemble members John Mahoney (left, as Simon) and Francis Guinan (as Henry) in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere production of “The Rembrandt.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW

Dodger (who in real life would be sent packing by Human Resources before he ever got clearance for the job), believes that museums are far too antiseptic (and the repositories of “old white people,” which suggests Dickey has never strolled through the Met, or the Art Institute on any given day). And beyond that, he manages to prod the very proper Henry, and the rather naive Madeline, to join him in breaking a crucial taboo and actually touching the surface of the Rembrandt canvas. They are caught in the act by Jonny (Gabriel Ruiz), an earthy, foul-mouthed armed guard who is driven to pull a gun on them. A crucial piece of action perhaps, but heavy-handed, and a tip-off that there will be no cohesive tone in this “Rembrandt.”

Henry is a rather prissy, middle-aged homosexual who for years has lived with his older, now terminally ill partner, Simon (Mahoney), an accomplished poet. Though distraught by the inevitable loss of this man, he cannot deal with it in any overtly emotional way. Touching Rembrandt’s painting — in which the heavy gold chain draped over Aristotle’s black tunic is interpreted as the link between the materialistic life on Earth and the enlightened spirit of love and meaning in a different realm — comes to be seen as an act of liberation and transcendence.

The irony is that in his real life, Rembrandt (Guinan), is very much the hustler and aging profligate, as we see from his interactions with his mistress/housekeeper Henny (Rodriguez) and his son, Titus (Olwin).

The play, directed by Hallie Gordon, comes full circle as Henry sits at the bedside of the dying (if still feisty) Simon. And even if their bitchy repartee sometimes feels like an overly cliched version of two old gay guys from an earlier era, Mahoney and Guinan find the true heart in the scene.

Without question the unseen star of this production is set designer Regina Garcia, who has devised a brilliant way to conjure multiple architectural styles and interiors — from a handsome museum gallery, to Rembrandt’s home/studio in Amsterdam, to an ancient Greek temple, to the present-day New York apartment where Simon lays dying.

Unfortunately, Dickey is too self-conscious by half when layering all her worthy ideas. It is Mahoney’s Homer who suggests what this play might have been were it as seamless as Garcia’s set and as mysteriously luminous as Rembrandt’s “Aristotle.”