Theater review by Helen Shaw
This Is Modern Art is a fictionalized retelling of the 2010 graffiti “bombing” of a wall outside the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, and it sides with the street artists as emphatically and unequivocally as would any piece of agitprop. Dramaturgically, though, the play seems conservative: It takes a thorny issue and sandblasts it smooth. There is some fun to be had in watching members of the LOH (Look Over Here) crew—Seven (Shakur Tolliver), J.C. (Andrew Gonzalez) and Dose (Landon G. Woodson)—as they plan their assault on the Art Institute, and Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval’s play includes charmingly specific advice about life on the misdemeanor’s edge. (Always have a packet of mustard on hand in case you have to grapple with jailhouse bologna sandwiches.) Blessed Unrest's production is full of movement and energy, and the actors, particularly Tolliver, treat every moment with trembling intensity.
But although a furor erupted in 2015 after Chicago critics protested the play’s pro-vandalism stance, Goodwin and Coval’s drama itself is incredibly mild, with thin characterizations and a haphazard argument. Nearly half of This Is Modern Art consists of little lectures; the issues aren’t discussed or debated in anything approaching good faith. That leaves the performers little to play, so the star of the show becomes the graffiti itself. Happily, director Jessica Burr has commissioned New York art star KEO XMEN to create his own version of the Art Institute work, which glows handsomely behind the actors. Of course, KEO XMEN was invited to paint on cardboard boxes rather than, say, the outside of the New York Theatre Workshop building. That would have meant thinking seriously about the transgressive nature of graffiti, and that’s yet another argument no one seems to want.
4th Street Theatre (Off-Off Broadway). By Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval. Directed by Jessica Burr. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.