The Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942)—artist, agitator, femme fatale—led a fascinating life at the intersection of art, politics, and idealism. A silent-movie actress, a comrade-in-arms of Diego Rivera in Mexico, a documentarian of and participant in the Communist movement, she deserves to be better known—and for her story to be much better told than this very bad play tells it. Modotti—by Wendy Beckett, author of the flawed but far better Anaïs Nin: One of Her Lives—is the worst thing I've ever seen Off Broadway.
Episodes in Modotti's life play out disconnectedly. Tina (Alysia Reiner) moves from political crisis to crisis and from lover to lover. Her unfortunate, idealistic husband is played by Andy Paris as a vain dandy one would think utterly unappealing to the deep-thinking and emotionally demanding Tina. The photographer Edward Weston, who becomes her mentor and lover, gets a wooden, mumbling, Shatner-esque portrayal by an utterly lost Jack Gwaltney. Suffering like the rest from a lack of direction, Marco Greco's Diego Rivera blusters through scene after interminable scene like a John Belushi character searching for a funny line. Only the young Cuban revolutionary whom Tina takes up with later on (played, again, by Paris) evinces the slightest bit of chemistry with our heroine, making their brief Act II bedroom scene one of the very few bright moments in a long, dull evening.
I wasn't sure whom I felt sorrier for, myself or the actors forced to deliver the painfully stilted dialogue through which the playwright insists on telling, not showing, this inherently interesting story. And with all that, we don't even get a good history lesson, as the script fails to provide enough of the context that a historical piece like this needs. The large projections of Modotti's bluntly beautiful photographs and Rivera's famous agitprop murals give a sense of what was at stake artistically and how socialist idealism fed the art of these passionate, creative minds. But the stills, alas, have a good deal more vibrancy to them than most of what happens on stage.
Though Ms. Reiner starts off well, smoldering through the first scene, that bit of life is all too quickly extinguished amid the dry, amateurish exposition that follows. No Italian accent, no charismatic sexiness, no acting skills could be enough to give her a chance of salvaging this poorly conceived and poorly executed play.
Modotti runs at the Acorn at Theatre Row through July 3.