PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION, by Michael Bettencourt. Directed by Joe Antoun. Set design by Jeff Gardiner. Lighting by Karen Perlow. Sound by Derek Holbrook. With Elizabeth Duff, Douglass A. Flynn, Peg Holzemer, E Grace Noonan, Jacqui Parker, Sarah Parker, Michael Ricca, George Saulnier III, and Newell Young. Presented by Centastage at the Boston Center for the Arts, Thursday through Sunday through May 23 .
Michael Bettencourt's Pictures at an Exhibition is underdeveloped and overexposed. Inspired by a 1996 news story about a woman who was arrested at a Cambridge photo lab while picking up pictures of her nude four-year-old son, the new play touches on a slew of charged subjects, including freedom of expression, media sensationalism, pornography, child abuse, race, and class. But it explores none of them in any depth and has little point or even perspective. Moreover, the presentation of the basic facts and central characters is so sketchy and confused that the audience is left with no basis for independent judgment. Although there are some moving moments in the second act, the play is maddeningly incoherent.
Actually, Pictures at an Exhibition seems like two separate plays, loosely linked but markedly different in tone and subject. The essentials of the first are based on actual events related in news accounts, though Centastage has been compelled for legal reasons to publish and announce prominently a disclaimer stating that "any similarities are coincidental." Right. The second drama, about the arrested woman's relationship with her prison cellmate, is drawn from stories that Anna Deavere Smith collected from women in prison. In fairness, Bettencourt should have credited his second source not only in the press material, which is seen only by a handful, but also in the program.
The first act is a messy pastiche of scenes depicting the arrest at the photo lab, the subsequent media frenzy, the trial, and the family life and internal conflicts of the arrested woman, here called Margaret Pasqualini. Margaret keeps insisting that she took the photos, for a college extension class on the human form, because she wanted to capture her son's innocence, and she's outraged that anyone would see the pictures as pornographic. And Bettencourt makes no attempt to explain why the people at the photo lab think they're precisely that. Margaret's surely aren't the first shots of kids in the buff they've developed. So what is it about the pictures that causes concern? The poses? The focus? The playwright doesn't say.
The legal issues are also left murky. Although the press release gives the impression that the case centers on charges of child pornography, the script never makes clear whether such charges are made and then dropped or never made at all. At the trial, Margaret is convicted of disorderly conduct and malicious destruction of property, which is equally baffling. In the scene at the photo lab, she mouths off to the police but seems guilty of nothing more serious than resisting arrest. Once found guilty, she's given a choice between 30 days in jail or probation, a fine to cover damages to the lab, community service, and a written apology. Against her husband's wishes, she opts for the slammer, on principle.
Set in prison, the second act details Margaret's difficult but ultimately enlightening relationship with a tough Latina bully named Cortez, who's about halfway through a 25-year sentence for complicity in the murder of her four-year-old daughter. Early on, Cortez condemns Margaret, both for taking the pictures and for choosing prison when all she had to do to remain home with her son was to "chew crow and fake sorry." "If you don't make really clear choices," she says, "you end up hurting the people you want to protect."
Cortez's sanctimonious scolding seems ludicrous at first. But after she finally tells Margaret the wrenching tale of her own crime, committed under the sway of her horrifically abusive mate, her admonitions acquire the weight of bitter experience. Sharp, affecting, and sometimes lyrical, Cortez's stories and observations are by far the best bits in the play. But the second act, though much more engaging than the first, is still unsatisfying. Not only is the relationship lopsided, with Cortez imparting all the wisdom, it's also implausible. Why would this woman, who's so defensive and hostile, suddenly open up to Margaret after confiding in no one for a dozen years?
Director Joe Antoun made a wise choice when he cast Jacqui Parker as Cortez. Natural, dynamic, and fresh, she is as convincing as she could possibly be. Although the supporting cast is uneven, Elizabeth Duff's portrayal of Margaret is sound. But the world-premiere production doesn't, and couldn't, begin to rise above Bettencourt's ill-crafted play.