The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 8, 2007
Playwright Israel Horovitz uses a unique historical incident as the starting point for his new play, The Secret of Mme Bonnard's Bath. In the 1940s, a napping security guard at a small French art museum awoke to find an old man applying fresh paint to a painting by the artist Pierre Bonnard. When confronted by the guard, the man revealed that he was Bonnard, and had had a new idea for this particular painting—almost 20 years after he originally finished it.
Thus, begins Horovitz's journey into the history of this respected but enigmatic painter. The Secret of Mme Bonnard's Bath juxtaposes the artist's turbulent personal life with the story of two modern day French art students, both with personal problems of their own, trying to solve the mystery of why Bonnard revisits this particular painting in the museum. Horovitz's play is full of fascinating historical details and whets one's appetite for more knowledge about Bonnard and his work. But, it rarely strikes any emotional chords with the audience, opting instead to take a distant intellectual stance. This may very well be a pitfall associated with placing a selfish and cowardly aesthete at the center of one's play.
Bonnard's storyline follows him across the years between 1908 and the 1940s, as his work begins to achieve notoriety. The play zeroes in on the painter's relationship with two different women: Marthe, his primary model and later his wife (she appeared in almost 400 of Bonnard's 500 paintings, mostly in the nude or in the bath); and Chaty, the love of his life. Bonnard tries to balance the demands of both women, and his work, without either of them knowing how he feels about the other. Meanwhile, in the present day, Luc and Aurelie, two art students at Villa Arson, the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Nice, are researching Bonnard for the final exam. When they discover that Bonnard's Young Women in the Garden is significantly different in person from its textbook likeness, they start investigating the artist's background, searching for clues as to why he would change this particular painting. But, Luc and Aurelie's friendship is complicated by long-hidden feelings they have for each other (and the fact that neither one of them is available).
Horovitz seems most interested in what makes Bonnard tick artistically. Typically, the artist is drawn to beauty and that which stirs his vision the most. Marthe fits this bill perfectly, and even though she's a sickly, depressing stick in the mud, Bonnard will do whatever it takes to keep her happy. He can't afford to lose his muse. This investigation into Bonnard's process might be interesting were it not for the fact that he is such an unlikable protagonist. Both pretentious and precious, he is also deceptive and self-involved. How else to describe a man who thinks of his longtime partner only as his "model," and refers to her as such to the woman he's allegedly really in love with? The emotional distance Bonnard maintains in his life is reflected in the script, keeping the audience at arm's length most of the time. The Secret of Mme Bonnard's Bath engages viewers more directly whenever Luc and Aurelie are on stage (they're much more emotionally open and available), but, alas, they are not given nearly enough time to leave a stronger mark.
John Shea, a likable and dependable actor, does the best he can to make Bonnard palatable, but the script undoes him. Stephanie Janssen fares much better in a trio of important roles—Aurelie, Marthe, and Chaty—bringing warmth and empathy to all three, and making each one different from the others. Michael Bakkensen rounds out the cast with a splendid turn as Luc, and does nicely with a number of smaller parts, as well.
Horovitz does a good job directing his own work, emphasizing the humor in it, keeping the pace up and transitioning well from one scene to the next. But, ultimately he cannot make Bonnard engaging enough to hold the audience's attention.
If nothing else, though, The Secret of Mme Bonnard's Bath serves as an intriguing calling card for the new producing arm of Horovitz's long-standing New York Playwrights Lab. It will be interesting to see what the other members of the lab, including the prolific Horovitz, spring on theatergoers next.