nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 3, 2008
No need to troll the imagination for dramatic elements when treason is the subject. Plot, motivation, and the threat of execution naturally propel the story forward. Throw in an artist as protagonist, drugs, war, and forgery and the interest quotient hits the bell. Based on a riveting historical incident, Another Vermeer, by Bruce J. Robinson, incorporates all of these elements, often with clever dialogue and some fine performances.
The story, which takes place in prison, revolves around Hans van Meegeren, a 20th century Dutch painter, who must prove that the Vermeer he sold to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring during World War II was actually his forgery, and that he is therefore not guilty of collaborating with the enemy by selling Dutch property. He must prove his innocence to save his life.
Robinson gets an A for his fascinating topic. He cleverly introduces ghosts of the past: the artist's painting professor, Bartus Korteling, who instructs his students to copy the masters; a fierce art critic, Dr. Abraham Bredius, who van Meegeren believes destroyed his career; and Vermeer. These are telling moments that inform the artist's character. At times the dialogue is filled with pathos:
VERMEER: You want me to help you capture the light.
VAN MEEGEREN: How did you know?
VERMEER: Everyone wants me to help them capture the light...Take what you're dealt.
Later van Meegeren is smartly referred to as "mediocrity in a smock." Robinson's dialogue is intelligent, especially when he allows his characters to engage one another as in the excellent verbal duel between the artist and Bredius, the critic.
Why then, does this seemingly substantive play appear alternately static and shrill with only occasional moments of beautiful drama? The key lies primarily with the director, Kelly Morgan, who uses silence when action is needed and shouting when nuance will do. His choice of opening is particularly poor—interminable, actually: a rumpled man shuffles onto a dimly lit stage with an attaché. With his back to the audience, he unloads the contents onto a small wooden table. The audience cannot see the contents, cannot see the man's face or how he feels about the contents. In fact, ten minutes into it I still didn't know who this character is or where the play is set. And, I was still waiting for it to begin. There are many scenes like this, some where the artist moves a stool around, others where he ingests one drug or another, and still others where he is supposedly sketching (and not well; either get a decent sketch in progress and let him play with it or don't do it all). These are moments in which Morgan attempts to establish van Meegeren's character, but there is nothing else going on and all of these pantomimes—yes, all—are wasted moments, because they bring the play's momentum to a screeching halt.
Austin Pendleton has the weight of the show on his shoulders. Physically, he brings credibility to the role of the artist. But, his interpretation does not ring true. He snorts and groans and drags his feet around the stage to illustrate van Meegeren's nasty addictions. The character is abusive and Pendleton plays him loud, always loud, and ultimately I stopped listening to him. There are hints at vulnerability, as in the scene with Vermeer and in the conflict with Bredius. But, they are too few. Pendleton gave me no reason to care about van Meegeren, because while he shouted and argued, I couldn't see the ache that makes him tick. The character is a con man who found his art, but gets no satisfaction from signing his own name.
Thom Christopher gives a standout performance as Bredius, the critic. Not only is he a large physical presence, but he uses his deep sonorous voice to great effect. It is his measured step, his vocal modulation, his smug confidence that turn his character into a man with all the authority van Meegeren imagines him to have. Christopher brings all this to bear in the clash with the artist, when the latter reveals that he forged a famous painting that Bredius publicly claimed to be the best Vermeer yet. Bredius's potential downfall is palpable. It is a beautiful dramatic moment and one that both Christopher and Pendleton can take credit for. I wanted more just like it.
Three more round out the cast. Christian Pedersen delivers a crisp commanding performance as Lt. Thomas Keller, the threatening man with life and death authority over van Meegeren. Justice Grace plays Bram, the young prison guard and model. And, Dan Cordle doubles as a suave Vermeer and a slightly over-zealous professor.
The simple set, designed by Jeff Pajer, features an illuminated skylight. Deborah Caney selected a nice choice of costumes, and Tony Kudner did a fine job in designing the lighting. Sound, by Kevin Lloyd, is effective.