The Most Deserving is definitely deserving of your time

In Yasmina Reza's Art, four wealthy, educated men fall out because one of them has acquired an all-white painting. The discussion in Catherine Trieschmann's The Most Deserving isn't conducted in such polished sentences, and the cast of characters is rural and far less privileged than Reza's; even Edie, the possible arts patroness, isn't all that rich. These folks are members of the arts council in Ellis County, Kansas. They have $20,000 to award to a deserving artist, but there aren't that many artists around, and besides, they're having trouble deciding just what constitutes "deserving." Everyone has a motive for supporting his or her candidate, and those motives are fueled more by pragmatism, hatred, lust or petty score-settling than by aesthetic appreciation.

Council head Jolene is concerned with the group's finances, which means finding an artist that their strongest supporter on the city council will endorse: his son, for example. Dwayne, a broke car mechanic, could use the $20,000 and convinces himself to apply, arguing that his portraits of vice presidents are, in fact, genuine art. Thrown by the requirement that the chosen one constitute an underrepresented American voice, Dwayne determines to become a minority in any way he can. Ted, Jolene's husband, is an Englishman who grew up in London but can't name a single painting in the National Gallery. We're never quite sure where Edie stands, and it doesn't help that her drinking periodically fuddles her brain. Only Liz Chang, an assistant art professor at the community college, appears to be a real advocate for art, and she's championing African-American outsider artist Everett Whiteside, who makes sculptures out of trash. Still, somehow in the midst of all this deranged argument, a couple of real insights into art and artistry emerge.

I once worked at the Colorado Council on the Arts and took notes for dozens of art juries; although our judges had a wider field of serious applicants to choose from and were certainly more knowledgeable than hers, Trieschmann has really caught the tone of the deliberations. The Colorado Council relied on the legislature for funding, and though most of the state's artists clustered in the metro area, most of the legislators were from rural towns — which meant a fair amount of money going to, say, kids' tap-dance schools rather than Denver galleries. We saw constant jockeying for resources between Colorado's handful of large arts organizations and the hundreds of smaller ones, and lots of cooked-up community-outreach programs from artists who really just wanted funding to continue their work. (Kansas governor Sam Brownback vetoed the budget for the Kansas Arts Commission in 2001, which meant that state's commission lost federal funding, too; Colorado governor Bill Owens did the same thing two years later.)

I saw Trieschmann's How the World Began a year or two back, and I knew she could write intelligent, thoughtful dialogue. I'd never have guessed that she could also be this funny — original, sudden-gusts-of-surprised-laughter funny — and the Denver Center Theatre Company deserves a lot of credit for commissioning this play (it was first read at last year's New Play Summit). There's a bedroom scene here more hilarious than any I've seen in French farce.

Perhaps the most wonderfully drawn of Trieschmann's wonderfully drawn characters is Everett Whiteside. He may be the real thing, a guy touched by the genuine wonder of creation. But he's also a crazed, paranoid, ranting, uncontrolled loser who takes the Tea Partiers one better when he fulminates that the government has literally crawled up his ass. Jonathan Earl Peck gives a terrific performance in the role — sly, powerful, passionate and compelling. Another stellar performance comes from Craig Bockhorn. His Dwayne seems innocuous and inconspicuous at first, but eventually comes close to dominating the action, and his hurt feelings and crawling lack of self-esteem evoke both hilarity and compassion. Judith Hawking's Jolene is as bossy and fussy as every committee woman you've ever known. I never thought I'd see as much of Sam Gregory, who plays Ted, as I did in this show, and you have to admire the way he inhabits this weird, slithery role. Rebecca Hirota is an earnest Liz, and Jeanne Paulsen dominates throughout as grande dame Edie. That is, when she's not throwing up.

It's been a long time since I've had this much fun at the theater.