In the interactive Beneath the Gavel, making its New York City debut at 59E59, there is a very good scene in which the cast gives the audience an auction lesson, complete with inside information about bidding and price manipulation by an auction house. (Former Christie’s and Sotheby’s employee Barbara Strongin served as consultant; in addition, the theater is on the site where Christie’s once housed its galleries.) Unfortunately, the rest of the two-hour show, presented by the Hartford-based Bated Breath Theatre Company and written and directed by troupe executive and artistic director Mara Lieberman, never reaches that level. The play goes back and forth between 1985, when elderly art collector Haddie Weisenberg (Debra Walsh) meets American painter Daniel Zeigler (Corey Finzel); 1990, when Zeigler is painting Weisenberg’s portrait; and 2016, when part of the now-deceased Weisenberg’s collection is being sold at auction, including works by Zeigler. For much of the show, auction house employees Tracey Allister (Missy Burmeister), Geoffrey Thompson (Gabriel Aprea), Stewart Felso (Sean Hinckle), and Charlotte McHenry (Moira O’Sullivan) and other characters (all played by the six-member cast) engage in boring, clichéd discussions about the art world and then start moving in bizarre interpretive dance straight out of the 1980s-era SNL skit Sprockets. Along the way, such real-life artists and gallerists as Andy Warhol, Larry Gagosian, Roy Lichtenstein, Leo Castelli, Wassily Kandinsky, and Damien Hirst are portrayed in annoying scenes that go nowhere.
During the show, there are three auctions in which the audience participates, using fake money that can be reserved in advance and accumulated when a cash cannon shoots it out over the crowd. While some people scramble for the bills, others just ignore it all; several of those disinterested audience members did not return after intermission. The auctions are actually fun, but there’s also something inherently demeaning about them, starting with that you have to get on your hands and knees and pick up bills off the floor if you want to amass quite a wad. Perhaps that is the point, but when Geoff states, “We’ve billed this sale as a sale for the ‘everyman.’ We’ve invited more VOPs than ever before,” and the auction employees chime in, “Very Ordinary People,” it’s not too hard to take that as an insult, even if that’s not what was intended.