You can count on one hand the successful plays about the art world, but Jon Robin Baitz has achieved just that with Ten Unknowns, which opened this past spring at Lincoln Center Theatre’s Mitzi Newhouse venue, and is looking at an extended New York run. Baitz’s script centers on Malcolm Raphelson, a painter whose brief vogue, in the 1950s, was cancelled by the rise of the Abstract Expressionists. Now, in 1992, he is an alcoholic recluse, holed up in a Mexican farmhouse. His agent, Trevor Fabricant, senses an imminent Raphelson revival and is eager to relaunch the artist with a New York show. To keep Raphelson working, Trevor sends his ex-lover, Judd Sturgess, to assist the artist. However, Judd is a handful himself, with a history of emotional problems and substance abuse. Into this ticking-bomb situation comes Julia Bryant, a student naturalist, who makes a shocking discovery concerning the authorship of Raphelson’s paintings.

One key element in Daniel Sullivan’s production is Ralph Funicello’s remarkably detailed set, which speaks volumes about the life that Raphelson has lived. Funicello has designed a large studio—perhaps a former barn—that is painted a vibrant blue. Downstage, on the Newhouse’s modified thrust, is a wooden deck, with numerous worn pieces of furniture, including a desk, chairs, tables, and a couch (a liquor bottle is always on display). Upstage can be found shelves full of art materials, including buckets, brushes, mixers and other objects, not to mention several stored canvases. Other details include a tile floor, ceiling beams, and windows and a doorway, which lead to an exterior filled with greenery. In every detail is, clearly, Raphelson’s retreat from the world.

Speaking of the design, Funicello says he researched Mexican interiors of the 50s and 60s, relying also on input from Sullivan’s brother, who knows Mexico well. “A lot of artists there work in houses with a central patio,” says the designer, “and that’s the studio. “That’s how it became the room off of the patio in a colonial house. That decision also allowed Pat Collins to get some really nice [sunlight] into the set.”

Funicello adds that the set’s color was a key element. “Also, “ he says, “I wanted to create a sense that a lot of painting had been done in that room, but that, until recently, it hadn’t been touched for a long time. I shopped a lot of the furniture in San Diego [where Funicello lives] because there are many Mexican stores there. It’s all cheap furniture, which we painted and treated. The other big decision was to have a real tile floor. Centerline Studios built the show—they found a tile company nearby, then painted them.” The floor is important because Raphelson paints on it. “Otherwise,” says Funicello, “he’d have to paint with his back to the audience. So he paints with framed canvases on the downstage wooden deck. The idea is that originall, this room had a complete tile floor, with two steps down from an upper to a lower level. However, at some point, Raphelson covered part of it with a wooden floor.”

Artist Frances Middendorf, who initially created Raphelson’s paintings, was a useful resource, says Funicello: “For example, the upstage table has a mortar and pestle, to grind colors. I spoke to some painters who’ve worked in Central America; they said he’d buy tube paint. But Fran said, `If he’s an old coot who likes to paint in the old way, he might mix his own colors.’ Of course, the prop buyer ordered cases of paint cans, which we laboriously painted down. We’d put paint all over hands, then pick up the cans. We also aged them to look rusty. There’s enough paint cans there to supply an artist for a lifetime.”

One big question remained: What would Raphelson’s paintings look like? It’s a major plot point that his style is resolutely representational. In keeping with the set’s deep blue, Funicello thought the paintings should be richly colored. However, Daniel Adel, who created most of the paintings, “felt that “Raphelson’s new work would be much more somber and sinister,” so they are a series of portraits and nature studies that make use of a sepia brown palette.

Interestingly, Funicello’s set was designed to fit the configuration of the Newhouse stage; however, a Broadway transfer has been announced for the fall, so the designer will have to find a way to rethink the design for a conventional proscenium house. One feels sure, however, that he will preserve the design’s strong sense of place, making sure that it remains the fifth character in a four-character play. Ten Unknowns also features costumes by Jess Goldstein, and sound by Janet Kalas. Stephen Swenson served as props coordinator and Amanda Naughton as props shopper. Scenic painting was by Scenic Art Studios.

Photos: Joan Marcus