South Beach Babylon — where art and commerce collide

Florida Studio Theatre’s latest production, South Beach Babylon asks whether, by earning money for their work, artists are forced to compromise their artistic vision for the sake of their pocketbook interests. Michael McKeever (author of the Miamians also staged at FST) wrote a witty and engaging script, which poses important questions about the role of art in our culture; and the cast is game for this send-up of the art world.We begin by meeting Jonas Blodgen (Matthew DeCapua), a recent Pratt graduate, who, after several months of staring at a blank canvas, has hopped in his car and headed to our fair state hoping for inspiration. He finds it by working as an apprentice for two other artists, Chillie Zangora (Graciany Miranda) and Simon Gardner (Roger Clark) and by being seduced by the gorgeous “face of South Beach” model Lennox Montel (Larissa Klinger). Zangora is a highly commercial artist requiring assistants to color by number on his large, high-priced canvases whereas Gardner creates performance pieces that are shocking to audiences, especially funders.

Zangora and Gardner represent the divergent paths a fresh, young artist could choose to take when launching a career.  Zangora is egomaniacal and focused entirely on his image and new cologne, and Gardner is a dyed-in-the-wool creative desperate to put a thumb in the eye of the artworld, which he feels is corrupting him. Miranda is hilariously wicked as he clomps around the stage in his signature artist’s uniform, black leather pants, boots and tight-fitting button-downs displaying his male cleavage. Clark is a charming victim of the cruelties of the art world; but I would have liked to see him tone down the self-righteousness and be a bit more self-deprecating. He says to his best friend, “Real art is for those who are willing to explore and embrace it, people who are willing to be changed by it. Not folks sitting on a bench in front of WalMart waiting for the 88 to West Kendall.”

Rounding out the cast is the brilliant Jeffrey Plunkett as Tony Everette (who killed it in The Columnist earlier this season), as Gardner’s aforementioned friend, who makes money for his artwork but clings to Gardner to keep him honest. Plunkett played Everette as a bit too snarky and angry for my taste – I would have liked to see him use a lighter touch bringing the audience into his confidence so we could roll our eyes with him at his over-the-top fellow artists.

The two stand-out performances came from the ladies – Klinger and the marvelous Priscilla Fernandez as art world diva Semira Mann. Montel is a beauty who tweets constantly to a small, loyal following, perhaps because she longs to be understood by her flesh and blood boyfriend Zangora. Klinger played her perfectly as sweet and encouraging to fellow artists and searching for her place in a world that sees fit to cut off her head (her image as the face of South Beach was being removed from billboards all over town by an unknown vandal). Mann is a publicist who can make or break an artist and has chosen Zangora as her ideal commodity. She is ruthless and cunning but also clearly has a soft spot for developing South Beach artists. She gets all the funniest lines of the show; and Fernandez’s delivery in the role is so perfect Mann herself would be sure to take her on as a client.

The plot is supposed to revolve around Blodgen, who is just discovering his artistic voice; and Decapua makes him a sympathetic naif caught up in all the activity swirling around him.  But would anyone who has just spent four years studying in NewYork City really be so nervous and self-conscious around fellow artists?

There is no doubt that South Beach Babylon is clever and extremely entertaining. I laughed longer and harder than anyone about the “flaming babies” who figured in Gardner’s earlier work. But I wanted a greater take-away message once McKeever raised these significant issues about the purpose of art in the 21st century. I like the idea that everyone from a doctor to a lawyer to an artist, at least in our culture, must decide whether they are pursuing their career for money or for love of their craft. Additionally, the play asks us whether art should serve as decoration or education. For me, the most successful works of art can do both.

Instead of forcing artists to make a binary choice, whether to “sell out” for a BMW or to live on what Everette calls a “below-poverty-budget, barely surviving on tenacity and ramen noodles,” perhaps we can find a way to ensure that they receive greater support from audiences and funders. A few weeks ago, the Sarasota Herald Tribune published a feature on the low salaries of our local artists. Everette makes a modest proposal for greater support for local artists; but he’s forced to use blackmail to make it happen. This play reminds us of the important role artists have in making our culture richer and more meaningful, and the compromises they have to make to continue the work about which they are passionate. But the ending of South Beach Babylon is tied up a bit too neatly in a bow; and we are left to ask whether art can survive on a recipe of blackmail and cologne.

Something to consider when you check out the hilarious and thought-provoking South Beach Babylon on stage at FST until August 18th.  Tickets are available at floridastudiotheatre.org or by calling the box office at 941-366-9000.

Larissa Klinger, left, as a model, and Matt DeCapua as a young and innocent artist in Michael McKeever’s “South Beach Babylon” at Florida Studio Theatre. BRIAN BRAUN PHOTO/PROVIDED BY FST

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