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‘The Mysteries and What’s So Funny’ Comes to Joyce Theater

December 18, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ ″The Mysteries and What’s So Funny,″ a fascinating life-is-art theater piece, intertwining the story of an old couple with interviews of the late artist Marcel Duchamp, is back in New York at the Joyce Theater.

David Gordon, best known as choreographer of the David Gordon-Pick Up Company, wrote the dialogue and also directed. Artist Red Grooms painted pieces of board which are carried around as props and sometimes used as mini- backdrops. It’s amazing how well a viewer’s imagination works when a couple stands and a rectangular board painted with bedsheets and pillows is placed upright behind them or people sit in chairs and hold on their laps a board painted with tablecloth and dishes.

An important prop is a picture frame. Put it in front of a toilet Duchamp signed and it looks like a painting. Put it in front of Sam and Rose, and their lives seem like art.

Philip Glass composed a score of gentle minimalist music played on a keyboard instrument.

It’s up to the audience to link the 90 minutes of episodes together, which is easily done. The effect is thought-provoking and, finally, moving.

Valda Setterfield, wearing a suit with a transparent jacket over a blouse, was Duchamp. She was placid and often funny. Actress Alice Playten announces that Duchamp’s 1912 ″Nude Descending a Staircase″ was his most important painting. Duchamp remarks, ″If you’d only told me, I could have stopped right there.″

The funniest character is an old woman, Fanny, who has a series of strokes. Jane Hoffman is so good that she’s the most poignant and also the most frightening.

Duchamp says he didn’t have a pressing need to express himself. He was as interested in chess and puns as in art. One of the cleverest concerns the missing dada or missing dad. Duchamp has no regrets, feels he missed nothing in life. But he doesn’t know what art is, whether one should try for broad appeal or the difference between mystery and obscurity. The nonartists discuss the mystery of wanting to have a baby.

The old couple, who tell their story between Duchamp interview moments, are Rose and Sam (Lola Pashalinski and Jerry Matz). Karen Graham and Scott Cohen portray the young Rose and Sam. Anger (dancer Scott Cunningham and actress Adina Porter) visits the old couple and a young couple, Bill Kux and Tisha Roth. Three couples complain about their childhoods.

″The Mysteries and What’s So Funny?″ premiered at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., in 1991 and played the Serious Fun Festival in Lincoln Center. The work toured for two months this fall, and runs at the Joyce Theater through Jan. 3.