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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Broom Street Theater's Not the Artist pits love against creativity
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Smooch (Manny Jones, right) devises a plan to have Ruley's (Adam Williams, left) more famous girlfriend sign his paintings.
Credit:Kurt McGinnis Brown

Artists are often portrayed as flaky, eccentric or even lazy people who care more about their work than their relationships. If you read a lot of fiction, you've seen these kinds of characters in supporting roles. Don't expect that from the Broom Street Theater production of Not the Artist (through March 9). Here, self-centered artists take center stage.

Not the Artist shows just how messed up a couple can get when they're not truly focused on one another. First performed by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in 2008, the play centers on Ruley (Adam Williams) and Livia (Kate Boomsma), artists and lovers who dwell in an abandoned warehouse. At the beginning of the play, Ruley attempts to paint while crowds clamor for a glimpse of Livia, who has just been paroled.

We soon learn that Livia painted a sexually charged mural on an abortion clinic. Public outcry and graffiti charges resulted, along with a group of obsessive fans. An opportunistic agent named Smooch (Manny Jones) is now trying to profit from the controversy by convincing Livia to sign Ruley's work and pass it off as her own.

The play takes its time to set up a forgery plot but moves swiftly thereafter. Swiftly and sometimes erratically, that is, as Livia immediately forgives Ruley for the transgression that inspired her to create the mural. She just as quickly decides to leave him because she thinks he's focused only on his art, not on her.

Some aspects of the play are puzzling. Livia's hasty decision feels forced since Ruley's approach to life comes off as more bohemian than obsessive. The setup for the couple's post-fame fraud is a bit illogical. And it seems there'd be more political commentary. For example, the defacement of the abortion clinic turns out to be an accident of sorts, not a statement about rights, morals or ideologies.

The play has an interesting trio of relationships at its center. It also has solid performances and engaging commentary on fame and profit versus artistic integrity. Madison playwright Kurt McGinnis Brown has an ear for dry, understated dialogue. As a cop and a news personality, local character actors Don Dexter and Joe Lutz steal their scenes with the play's few out-and-out jokes. Even the brash Smooch drops some wry commentary into the story. In other words, there's plenty that should make the play a success.

Unfortunately, Not the Artist doesn't quite hit the mark. So much time is devoted to the high-concept premise that thoughts on gender and class get cut out. The core relationship belongs to Ruley and Livia, yet their woes and reconciliations are limited to a few scenes. This leaves some key questions unanswered, like why Livia is forgiving one moment and irate the next. While the play hammers on the romantic notion that the artist should overcome selfishness for love, it falls apart because it doesn't pay enough attention to its own partner, the audience.

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