CONJUNCTIONS:25 Fall 1995
Amphibians
Jon Robin Baitz


Characters:
MALCOLM RAPHELSON
ANDREW PATTERSON
TALIA FOX
JORDAN COMBES
CARTER HAMILTON
JULIAN SAWYER
LIZ FRIAR


Act 1. December 1993.

(A sprawling, rambling, decrepit old house in Chiapas, Mexico, near but far from the town of San Cristobal. There are mountains in the distance. All rooms lead out to a lovely central courtyard. Off the dining room on one wing of the house is a painter's studio, chaotic and solitary, with over thirty years' worth of canvases stacked up in piles. Lights up on dining room after dinner: MALCOLM RAPHELSON, seventy-five years old, is sitting at the head of the long table. A shock of white hair, close-cropped, a cigar, old white pants, a white shirt. The other guests, TALIA FOX and JULIAN SAWYER, are kids in their late twenties (and informal assistants to Raphelson), CARTER HAMILTON, a journalist, JORDAN COMBES, a black lawyer, ANDREW PATTERSON, an art dealer, and LIZ FRIAR, a girl of twenty-one.)

RAPHELSON. Let us be clear, for once and for all. Nothing could make me go back home.

PATTERSON. Yet you still call it home. After thirty years. You at least acknowledge that America is still home. (He smiles slightly.) This is cause for hope. TALIA. They'll pay your way, Malcolm. It wouldn't cost you anything.

RAPHELSON. No, it's expensive in other ways.

COMBES. There will be other painters, other artists, people you have not seen in years.

RAPHELSON. For good reason, too. God, a room full of splashes of paint, hell no. And worse--painters talking. Jesus, I swear, if I am to be bored, I would rather be the one doing it.

PATTERSON. They want to celebrate you. Invite you in. From the wilderness. To bask. To claim your place. To be acknowledged. Is this a bad thing?

RAPHELSON. Oh it all sounds so damn trite. What do you think, Hamilton?

HAMILTON. Ah, me? Well. New York has changed. That might be interesting. Not having been back in thirty years. And it gives me another angle on you. Forgive me. (He smiles.) I am a journalist before all other things. Yes. Go back. What can it hurt?

RAPHELSON. I'm not an industry. I've seen it happen. Some little bit of life goes out of the subject. Some part of them is taken away. (Beat.) They become self-conscious. No more air in the cells. It's why Mexico is so good. The light. The air. It's all so much more real down here. (There is a silence at the table.) And you see, I am not an industry but a very old man with not a whole hell of a lot to say. So ...

TALIA. You are a workhorse, Malcolm.

JULIAN. Picasso hated himself too.

HAMILTON. Yes. He could barely get out of bed in the morning. He had to be coaxed. Supplicants all about, urging him on. This is in his eighties. Supplicants, come to pay their respects ... (He gestures about the table.) Comme nchca.

RAPHELSON. Ah. He had something of the quick-change artist in him, a showman. He punched me in the stomach once in Madrid, to prove a machismo point. I deserved it but I've never been able to forgive him, never could bear bad manners.

JULIAN. That, pal, is a laugh and a half. RAPHELSON. It's too true, though. The modern sensibility? Rudeness and cruelty, viciousness and superiority. It's why I've never been back. It's a nation of house cats and trained monkeys beating each other up.

PATTERSON. If you go back, your price will go up.

TALIA. Ah. The lawyers speak.

PATTERSON. Why is talking about money to a man who might just make a little in his seventy-fifth year an insult?

RAPHELSON. (Turns, suddenly bored with this, to LIZ.) Are you liking Mexico?
LIZ. Pardon? I'm sorry? I--

RAPHELSON. What exactly is it you're up to?
LIZ. Me? Was that--? Me?

TALIA. He does this.

LIZ. It's amphibians. I'm studying them here.

JULIAN. You're working at the lake?

LIZ. Yes. There's a particular salamander. Only at Lake Grijalva. There are not many left. I'm on a grant. My college.

TALIA. (Apologetic, to LIZ.) He does this. Ignores you throughout dinner and then turns on you.

JULIAN. You're dessert.

COMBES. May we talk business? It's why we came, Mal.

RAPHELSON. No. I'm talking to the girl. So. What's so interesting about these salamanders?

LIZ. Oh. Well. Yes? You want to ... ? You want to know?

RAPHELSON. Go ahead.

LIZ. Something is happening to the frogs. To all amphibians. There is a worldwide depletion in the amphibian population. Frogs in particular. Also certain species of salamander. In Mexico, here, it's been very bad.

RAPHELSON. Life is cheap here in Mexico. LIZ. Maybe. What I'm finding, the hard part, is that there are so many factors. For instance, the lake is being sold to a hotelier from Texas.

JULIAN. Right. They're going to build a resort for fishermen.

RAPHELSON. I'd heard that. And a direct flight from Dallas. It's bad. Very bad.

LIZ. The thing is, you see, they're stocking--they are going to stock the lake with bass. Which I think could actually do in the salamanders--I mean I have no absolute proof. There's been no impact report so ...

JULIAN. Go on.

LIZ. I went to Mexico City. They're like, the trade agreement is very good for them, they think. They think "It's going to be like Los Angeles here now. There will be so much money...." I have a meeting with someone from the Minister of the Interior. I explain about the danger to the frogs, the salamanders. He listens, nodding. The man nods and says, "Have you seen the women walking on the streets here with air filters? Children sent home from school because the sky is brown...." (Beat. She shrugs.) The single most polluted city in the world. "So how can I concern myself with the little frogs of the lake ... ?" That sort of thing.

RAPHELSON. Look. I don't mean to sound like an asshole but he's right.

LIZ. I suppose it's easy to sit here and say that. At your house here....

RAPHELSON. (A smile.) Yeah, it's easy to sit here and say that. But the fact is, young lady, there is a tension to life. There is a necessary battle. Few things survive. That dull old argument about "Why didn't God get involved with the concentration camps." Man chooses what he will save. And his jury is still out as to whether he will stick out his neck for his own damned species. So.

LIZ. Yes, but if you could explain to me what, if anything, this has to do with amphibians.

TALIA. He argues sideways.

JULIAN. Like a crab.

RAPHELSON. No, I'm saying that there are a lot of fights these people will have but--

(LIZ cuts him off, not impolite.)

LIZ. "Man chooses what he will save?" But, Mr. Raphelson, that kind of hubris, egotism--we end up in an ash heap.

RAPHELSON. Yes, we do. I know. (Beat.) The sky is falling, and has been forever. (Beat.)

LIZ. Extinction, of amphibians in particular--it's the canary in the coal mine. What happens to them happens to us.

COMBES. If you were to allow me to take back say two pieces, think they would sell.

RAPHELSON. Ahhhh ... there's nothing worth showing.

COMBES. A real interest. Corporate buyers. Nobody has bought art in years. Perhaps a commission. There is a lobby. A particular lobby. A large communications company with an interest in culture. They have put out feelers for a mural. Muralist.

RAPHELSON. (Turns suddenly to LIZ.) Mexicans have more pressing problems than the fate of their frogs. Frogs don't translate into cash, into any currency really, so ...

HAMILTON. So much of the world down here has been sold off for money, remember, United Fruit--last century, so why not sell to a hotelier now?

JULIAN. The two hotels in town, they used to be churches. Now it's all room service and the satellite dish, you know. The salamanders are not alone ... it's all ...

PATTERSON. Malcolm, come back to the States, meet the commission people, let yourself be rediscovered. We've worked so hard for you.... It's unfair to fall back into being a hermit at this point....

COMBES. If you continue to get the attention we think you're going to. Malcolm ...

PATTERSON. It's an important building. RAPHELSON. Oh for God's sake! "Important building."

COMBES. We come down here. You ignore us. We check into one of those converted "churches." He's your lawyer. I'm your dealer. A little courtesy. Forgive me. But we've been waiting in our hotel for three days to see you. Enough of this rustic crap. My temper is frayed. I have a rash. I can't get an outside line.

JULIAN. The hard sell, Malcolm. I warned you.

COMBES. (Turns to JULIAN.) Please. Let me speak to the man, would you? Alone.

JULIAN. Frankly, you know, here you come, really a criminal guy, this art dealer who has insinuated himself without even asking, without even--and he listens because you're black and he's intrigued so--

(COMBES easily and calmly slaps JULIAN backhanded, across the face. His chair falls backwards. COMBES rises and puts his booted foot firmly on JULIAN's neck.)

COMBES. (Calm and polite throughout.) I swear to God this stuff is not on. Now listen to me, son. From now on, when I call from New York, you put me through to Mr. Raphelson or I'll send down a whole team of kids far smarter, far more amusing than yourself, right out of Harvard, and very cynical, and Mr. Raphelson will forget all about you, understand? And we're going to rediscover manners as well. (He takes his foot off JULIAN's neck. JULIAN gasps. Then laughs, as do TALIA and RAPHELSON. Only HAMILTON and LIZ sit pale, looking down at their plates. PATTERSON is bored.)

JULIAN. (Rising.) Mr. Hamilton, are you going to write about all this for your magazine?

(RAPHELSON pours himself tequila.)

RAPHELSON. (Gentle.) You had it coming, son. You know about Mr. Combes here. (He turns to HAMILTON.) Six months' hard time for defacing a canvas. It's art dealers who always go to jail. The Rothko thing ... that guy ...

HAMILTON. He went back to London.

RAPHELSON. Which is worse than jail, in fact. TALIA. We have a very nice café con leche flan for dessert.

COMBES. I can't do business like this. Can you? (He turns to PATTERSON.)

RAPHELSON. I did warn you not to bother coming down. Look. Gentlemen, you've sold a few of my paintings, but I'm too old to be an industry and too young to become an institution. (Beat.) What the hell use do I have down here for money? It sits there, roaring at me, challenging me. I don't need the noise. I'm not selling. You know, you made me a great deal of the stuff this year and I don't know that I'll ever require any again.

PATTERSON. Does that mean you won't sell any more pieces? You know--you still--there's going to be a tax bill--your ex-wife--the--you don't have as much as you think.

RAPHELSON. I'll think about giving you a piece on one condition, Mr. Combes.

COMBES. One condition?

RAPHELSON. Apologize to Julian here for hitting him. (Beat.)

COMBES. If I apologize then you'll give us something?

RAPHELSON. I'll entertain the notion. (Beat.)

PATTERSON. Well.

TALIA. Come on. Do it. What harm can an apology do?

COMBES. (To JULIAN.) I should not have resorted to physical violence. It never solves anything.

JULIAN. And?

COMBES. I apologize.

JULIAN. (Grinning, trying not to laugh.) I accept your apology. Sir. I refuse to live in a world where people think that resorting to fisticuffs solves anything and furthermore-- (He can bear no more. He collapses in gales of laughter. TALIA joins him.) People--there comes a time when people get tired, Mr. Combes....

COMBES. (Enough. He's had it. On his feet.) I'm leaving. That's it. Fine. You want what you want, Mr. Raphelson, this little circus ... RAPHELSON. Ahh, hell, let's go into the studio. (Beat.)

COMBES. Ah.

RAPHELSON. Don't be thin-skinned, Combes. The kid's just joshing, hell. Let's go into the studio. Maybe we'll find something. (He points to LIZ FRIAR.) You choose, dear. If there's anything there, let her choose one.

LIZ. I don't know anything about art. I'm not interested in art.

RAPHELSON. Nor is Mr. Combes, but it hasn't stopped him from exploiting it successfully for a quarter century. Come on, it'll be fun. You choose and he can take whatever you choose back and sell it and that will be that. Maybe. If I like it.

LIZ. I think I'll be leaving. I have to go.

RAPHELSON. You don't like us.

LIZ. I'm not--I don't understand any of this, Mr. Raphelson, and it's late. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude. I just don't understand any of ... (Beat.) And no, I don't think I like you.

RAPHELSON. That, my dear, is because you're used to amphibians, to fish and salamanders and frogs, you think it's clearer if the blood is cold, huh? Ahh. Come on. Come look at the pictures. The pictures are similar to the salamanders. They're very cold-blooded, dear. (He rises out of his chair and raises his arms.) Let's look at some art. (They walk into the studio across the courtyard.)


Act 1, Scene 2

(RAPHELSON's studio. The group assembled about a large canvas which we do not see.)

RAPHELSON. Ahhh, a landscape? God. No. I--This is bad.

LIZ. You asked me to choose. I recognize--I mean--it's partially recognizable.

COMBES. I like it.

RAPHELSON. Shut up, this has nothing to do with you. I'm asking the girl. LIZ. You understand how quiet it is here. How lonely it is. (Beat.) Also. Dangerous, even though it's beautiful. When I'm out at the lake there is always the sense that something unspeakable is about to happen. And you feel it in the painting? How did you know? How do you know that, Mr. Raphelson?

RAPHELSON. Because Mexico, Miss Friar, is about death. Most places in the world are about life and death in more or less equal measure, but for some reason, Mexico is more death than life, more dark than light, even though the light is spectacular.

LIZ. It is?

RAPHELSON. Think back to the Aztecs. Horrifying marvelous people. Loved nothing more than a human sacrifice. The Spanish hated all that. You know, they hated everything that was here, the people and their temples and their gods. (Beat.) Since you're so interested in extinction. The church in that picture--there are more than one if you look closely, well. The reason there are so many churches in Mexico, you see, is that Cortez and co. wherever there had been a temple--they would tear it down and build a church. It's an entire country of extinct peoples, dear. (Beat.) The idea of life is--was--different here. This idea of human sacrifice--the Spaniards would burn people as heretics condemning them to eternal damnation. Whereas--the Aztecs when they sacrificed someone--and there were days when thousands lined up to go down--some of them became gods after. Thousands of people waiting to die. Another view of life. That is Mexico. Another view altogether of faith and religion. Man and God.

PATTERSON. Yes and it's quite clearly all in that painting, it's right there in front of you. I mean--

(Wearily, RAPHELSON holds up his hand to stop this line of bullshit.)

RAPHELSON. Just stop.

HAMILTON. In this one. The village. El Salvador. The murdered Jesuits.

RAPHELSON. Manet's executions. And Velázquez. Something going on in the dark. Horrible goings-on outside of basic kindness that-- (He stops himself.) COMBES. If you could let me sell one of these. (Pause.)

HAMILTON. Are you afraid?

RAPHELSON. Of what?

HAMILTON. (Thoughtful, deductive.) I don't ... know. When you left. When you left in '59, it was very bad. You were forty. Perhaps the country--the way it's changed--it might be exciting for you to see. Do you think ... ?

RAPHELSON. I am not an American anymore. I am a Mexican citizen. I gave up my citizenship.

PATTERSON. It is not the same country.

RAPHELSON. It will always be the same country. (Beat.) Diego Rivera was heartbroken when Rockefeller painted over the mural he did for Rockefeller Center. (Beat.) Did you know that at the post office in Sag Harbor, there was a mural of mine ... W.P.A.... (He seems to drift away.) When they paint over your work because someone in it looks a little like Lenin, you're extinct, there's no place for you. A little town! And vilified! My town.

COMBES. I didn't know.

RAPHELSON. Well they just painted it over one day. I'm sorry, I don't feel like selling anything, or going back.

PATTERSON. You're almost broke.

RAPHELSON. Yeah, well, I've been almost broke most of my life and now I'm old, soon I won't need anything. We are not on Beekman Place.

COMBES. There are ... at least a hundred pictures in here. In this studio.

JULIAN. Two hundred and counting, pal.

PATTERSON. You know, your family back home, they've made contact, they've made demands, they've--your ex-wife, your son. Your son! You know you have to think about your executors. Your family? RAPHELSON. Like something out of Grimm's fairy tales. The crone and the scold. "The gingerbread harridan." Is she still doing constructions out of rice?

COMBES. Millet actually. And Artforum loved them.

RAPHELSON. (To LIZ.) My second wife, I've had three and a half, makes art outta oatmeal or somethin'. She divorced me when I poured maple syrup over one of her "constructions," it looked like something from Kellogg's. "Quaker instant grant." (He starts to walk out.) I thought she was doing the unthinkable; making me breakfast.

(RAPHELSON exits. Pause. PATTERSON and COMBES stand. JULIAN grins. TALIA makes to clean a stray brush. COMBES touches a canvas, rolled up in the corner.)

PATTERSON. Through the looking glass, isn't it? Another world.

COMBES. How--how would you say his health is, Talia? He seems ...

TALIA. Oh he's a horse. A colt. He wears me down.

PATTERSON. I see.

JULIAN. Talia keeps him from sinking under the ice, he gets so sad.

COMBES. Uh-huh.

(COMBES lifts the canvas but JULIAN is there, blocking the man's arm with his own.)

JULIAN. I'm sorry. It's just not happening. You don't touch anything without him here.

COMBES. I cannot work this way. Patterson, I can't. I mean ... I'm not a crook, I'm an art dealer.

TALIA. He actually thought that you might try and take something and asked us to make sure we stayed with you....

HAMILTON. Is it like this here all the time?

LIZ. It's just--you all behave like adders. Goodbye.

HAMILTON. (To LIZ.) I always thought "there's no one on the planet quite as bad as movie people" but these folk, wow. PATTERSON. Why is he doing business with me and Combes if he doesn't trust us?

TALIA. Because he doesn't trust you. If he trusted you, you'd kill him. You can't, if he knows you want to. Simple, simple logic of an old coyote, right?

COMBES. Let's go back to the hotel, Andrew.

PATTERSON. We can try again tomorrow.

COMBES. Maybe go see the ruins.

JULIAN. They're closed.

TALIA. Some kids spray painted them.

JULIAN. They just discovered graffiti art. (JULIAN holds the door open and they all go into the central courtyard, into the dark night, stand by the fountain in the near black.)

PATTERSON. Tell him good-bye. We'll call before we leave tomorrow.

(The two men exit into the night.)

JULIAN. I tell Raphelson we need dogs, and we need alarms and we need security, but he doesn't listen.

HAMILTON. (Disliking this kid.) Why is it, I wonder, that the terribly talented must always surround themselves with their lessors? Eh?

JULIAN. One asks oneself this ... every day, sir.

HAMILTON. In a small town, at the end of Mexico. An expatriate, maybe ex-communist American painter, ignored for decades after fleeing the Red Years, Eisenhower, McCarthy, bomb shelters, et al., is about to be rediscovered, and sobered up, maybe half-mad--by young people who stop here on their drift down southward--

JULIAN. A story, yeah. Perhaps. Maybe. Yeah. I like it.

HAMILTON. Wasn't there an assistant who stole a few pictures?

TALIA. A friend of Julian's. Cahill. He got Mal drunk and disappeared ... and showed up in New York ... which was why Malcolm got Patterson and Combes. To protect him. And we protect Malcolm from them. It's a nice little ecosystem. Mr. Hamilton. JULIAN. And he can't really handle the rapids these men swim in. For some reason. I can. Me and Talia we can handle most things, you know ... you don't like me. Well. Hey. But I love Mal. I actually do. (Beat.)

HAMILTON. Do you paint?

JULIAN. I clean brushes. I fetch and steppit. I carry. I'm a water bearer.

HAMILTON. How did you end up here?

JULIAN. (Smiles.) I'm just, we're just, "young people who ... stopped here on our drift ... southward." As you put it.

HAMILTON. Yes. I know. (Beat.) My son follows the Grateful Dead around. He doesn't, I don't think, speak English anymore. They nod and grunt. Like some tribe ... and if the Dead are on the Eastern Seaboard, we see him, lank hair and English teeth, he's twenty. A year at MIT and then this. Zoning out. (Beat.) I don't know what any of you are looking for. (He looks at his watch, LIZ.) I have to go back to town, care for a lift?

LIZ. No. I'm the other way. The lake.

HAMILTON. It sounds like a story: your lake. "The end of the world ..."

LIZ. (A small smile.) At very least it's a story, Mr. Hamilton.

HAMILTON. Yes. Too bad, though, I only write about culture. That's all they give me now. So the end of the world will have to be reported on by others.

TALIA. I'd like a lift into town if you don't mind. They're showing Last Year at Marienbad in Spanish.

(They both exit. JULIAN and LIZ are left in the studio.)

LIZ. I am finding that Mexico brings out the worst in Americans.

JULIAN. The entire world brings out the worst in Americans.

LIZ. Why did Raphelson invite me to dinner?

JULIAN. He likes young people. He likes new people. He's lonely. He's bored. He's still curious about the world. He's hospitable, I don't know.... LIZ. Talia. Tell me. I mean, is it like--she really sleeps with him?

JULIAN. You think people give up sex at a certain age? He's not old. I think if he gave up sex he'd get old. Anyway, probably it's not sex the way we think of it, probably at a certain age anything young is attractive--you just want to sleep with it cause it's young.

LIZ. Do you sleep with him?

JULIAN. (Laughing.) No. But I mean, why not? Love is love.

LIZ. Is it?

JULIAN. He was in Spain in 1936. Seventeen years old. You probably know nothing about the Spanish Civil War. He just went. Those posters up there. (He points to the wall high up.) He did those, and they're sort of famous. The mother, the child, the pattern of German bombers above them in formation. Famous. Image of that war.... Can you read the caption?

LIZ. |Que haces tu para evitar esto?

JULIAN. What are you doing to prevent this?

LIZ. And so what happened to the social conscience? He drank it up?

JULIAN. (Shakes his head and walks away, cleans a brush.) If you'll forgive me, fuck you.

LIZ. He just doesn't seem to care about--

JULIAN. --Your frogs? What's he supposed to do?

LIZ. (Offended, and young.) He found it funny.

JULIAN. It is. What isn't? On some level? Funny. I mean, please. (Beat.) Raphelson fled the States. He had murals of his painted over. He had a brother who killed himself rather than name names ... Raphelson ... is a ... god. (Beat.) Tell me about the lake.

LIZ. At the lake ... at the lake. (A sigh.) We get death threats. I have a handbook on how to deal with death threats. "Report them to the authorities." But what that means is: "Ignore them and keep on working." A shed with tadpoles and salamander hatchlings--with shotgun blasts into it--because we're trying to block the Texans. Gunshots and fires. At night. I mean I am twenty years old.

JULIAN. And you might get killed for a salamander. Is it worth it?

LIZ. (A smile.) "|Que haces tu para evitar esto?"

JULIAN. When Raphelson started getting attention last year, a museum in Germany bought some books, he had done editions of Brecht--very beautiful woodcuts--so one sold at auction for a fair amount. So this room is worth something now. (Beat.) Maybe many millions. Suddenly, this worthless, terrific room here. (Beat.) So Malcolm is scared now because this terrific room used to just be a studio.

LIZ. Well, I wish I knew what to do with all this fear besides ignore it, go on. It's worse at home. Wake up on Sunday, feel useless, that's worse, I think, than this fear.

(JULIAN smiles at this.)

JULIAN. It's late to go back to the lake. There are more beds than people here, most nights.

LIZ. Ah. More beds than people.

JULIAN. Occasionally.

LIZ. You are one of those people who are unpleasant when there's more than one person in the room?

JULIAN. Besides me, you mean? Yes.

(
MALCOLM enters, drunk. He wears only a robe which is in danger of opening.)

RAPHELSON. Listen kiddo, stay here at my little circus, lot more fun than the little fishies and salamanders and so on, cause after they've all died there'll always be a Raphelson.

(They stare at him as he drinks and the lights fade.)