ICA's `Currents' hits terra firma; Isaac Stern; Neil Simon in Norwell

Controversy has surged around the Institute of Contemporary Art's ``Currents'' program since its stormy inception in the fall of '83. Critics have been alternately outraged, bemused, or scornfully amused by its smorgasbord format, which replaces two-month theme shows with constantly changing, simultaneous mini-exhibits. This structure was adopted to give curators the flexibility to communicate their enthusiasms immediately, and also to reflect the (often confusing) nature of today's art.

At least that's the theory. In practice, the ``Currents'' structural tempest has trickled into a predictable lagoon of large theme less shows splashing by at two-month intervals.

The real problem with ``Currents'' has been the educational vortex it leaves viewers swirling in. Most of us feel deluged by that cultural maelstrom out there; we depend on our institutions to stem the tide by illustrating the relationships among all those gushing ``isms'' that make up modern and postmodern art.

And the real surprise with the latest installment of ``Currents'' is that it has begun to do just that. As usual, there's something for everyone. But this time, 80 percent is worth looking at closely, and some of it is superb. Not only that, but the eclectic works are chosen and arranged to illuminate one another, creating a new and sorely missed cohesion.

For example, the upstairs galleries juxtapose the calm, panoramic landscapes of April Gornik with the New Age electronic-media-inspired imagery of Ed Paschke. This clash of cultures is mediated by the artists' unexpected similarities: Both work with color in a horizontal composition, and each explores the individual's relationship to large, external forces, whether nature or technology.

Downstairs, Robert Wilson's outstanding graphite drawings for the 12-hour, five-act opera ``The CIVIL warS'' (sections of which are now premi`ering at the American Repertory Theatre) continue the horizontal theme, except this time it's a striking investigation of the dramatic effects of light and movement.

Gornik's vast mountainscapes are also echoed in Bill Viola's affecting video installation ``Room for St. John of the Cross,'' which uses the martyrdom of the 16th-century Spanish mystic to explore the connection between physical deprivation and spiritual transcendence.

In short, the babbling brook of ``Currents'' has hit terra firma. With its combination of quality and lively interactions, it appears to be flowing past its blustery origins toward refreshingly eddy-fying ends.

Among world-class fiddlers, Isaac Stern is a chameleon. Somewhere amid the athleticism and pure marksmanship of Pinchas Zukerman, the singing sweetness of Itzhak Perlman, the conservatism of Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng, and others, his playing is not as easily pigeonholed.

Stern is committed to the composer's intentions as he understands them, and his personal style transforms in a unique way to meet different demands of different composers. Watched closely, his face changes, sometimes his posture, bowing, and stance. Finally, it becomes clear that he has studied each composer thoroughly with an eye and ear toward sublimating individualized mannerisms to articulate more clearly the vastly differing concepts of harmony, rhythm, dynamics. One thing is constant: a respected technique that audiences have come to take for granted.

Sunday, he played Brahms (Scherzo from F.A.E. Sonata), Mozart (Sonata in E minor, K. 304), Bach (Partita No. 1 in B minor), Faur'e (Sonata in A Major, Op. 13), Bartok (Four Romanian Dances), Szymanowski (``La Fontaine d'Arethuse,'' Op. 30), Ravel (``Perpetuum mobile''), and three encores.

Stern's musical sense is convincing not only within each selection, but in building a complete recital program that makes a well-rounded musical statement in itself: touching the depth of German music, the lightness of Austrian, the passion of Hungarian and Polish, and the introspection of the French.

Sunday's concert also included generosity. Big hearted, and with a zeal not found in two previous recitals here, Mr. Stern gave the extra measure and left them hollering for more.

Producer J. Arnold Nickerson calls his Nickerson Theatre in Norwell, Mass., ``The place to go where all is pleasant.'' And indeed, its premi`ere season is made up of subscriber-luring plays heavy on the schmaltz, great with guffaws, but scant on deep thought. Its fourth production, Neil Simon's ``I Ought to Be in Pictures,'' fits this bill, but surprisingly has enough charm to avoid offensive ingratiating. The play is about a reconciliation between a brash young woman from Brooklyn and the writer father she hasn't seen in 16 years. Ostensibly coming to Los Angeles to be an actress, she takes over his life, infusing color and purpose back in it; they wrangle and reconcile, and she returns to Brooklyn.

Simon's 18th play, it's a solidly crafted, gleaming engine that roars toward its inevitable conclusion with nary a sputter. Much is either predictable or pointedly outlandish, and Simon's famous one-liners prevent it from getting serious.

But it's less jokey than its predecessors, and there is a warmth at the center that shows up most plainly in the way the father and daughter settle what's between them. This irresponsible schlemiel ends up really coming through for her, and she leaves with what she came for -- a quieted and filled heart.

The actors, all local professionals, do well -- particularly Dori Arnold as the Brooklynette Libby. Her declaiming, ``I EXPECT I shall be the BELLE of AmHOIST . . . ,'' is one of the play's more memorable moments. Stephanie Voss gives a solid, reassuring presence as the girlfriend; Randall Forsythe, as the father, has the flavor of a lanky Walter Matthau.

Joan Brancale's set -- one of the most intricate I've seen, a complete apartment from front door to patio -- gets my vote as ``set of the year.'' ``I Ought to Be in Pictures,'' directed by John Fogle, closes Sunday. -- 30 --

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