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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Bakersfield Mist: The Clash of Two Different Worlds

Also see Bob's review of The Nutcracker and I

Bakersfield Mist
Linda S. Nelson and John FitzGibbon
Bakersfield Mist, the new one-act, two-character play at the New Jersey Rep, depicts the brief encounter of a very odd couple. Its enticements for theatregoers include quirky, interesting characters, clever, highly amusing dialogue, food for thought about the evaluation of art and the human need for validation, and two broad, delightful performances.

The setting is a tastelessly decorated home trailer in a rundown California trailer park. It is the home of Maude Gutman, a middle-aged, boozing, unemployed bartender. Maude is the kind of wisecracking character who is a million laughs if you are not her and if you separated from her coarse behavior by the fourth wall of a theatre stage. Sure, she's had it tough. Her husband abandoned her ("Is he dead?" "Let's hope.") and their young son years ago, and then things went very badly for the son as he grew into adulthood. Still, it would be unlikely that you would seek to socialize with her if she lived in your neighborhood.

Maude had bought a sloppy looking abstract painting at a local junk shop which a neighbor, who was an art teacher, thought was an unsigned, but most valuable Jackson Pollack. A Google search led Maude to the tony sounding Foundation for Art Research through which, at no small cost, she has hired an expert appraiser to come from New York to evaluate and, hopefully, authenticate her painting.

Enter art appraiser Lionel Percy. Percy is supercilious, disdainful and arrogant. The real thing, he is the former Director of the Metropolitan Museum. However, as Maude, who has done her research, will force him to admit, Percy was fired from the museum because he paid millions of dollars for a statue that was a forgery. Thus, Percy is now traipsing around the globe earning a living by appraising works of art. He assuages himself with his self-description as "the Indiana Jones of the art world with a big expense account."

Relying on his self-vaunted instincts, Percy concludes that the painting is the work of a known Pollack imitator, but the rambunctious Maude will not accept his judgment. Under relentless pressure from Maude, Percy succumbs to her entreaties to join her in imbibing Jack Daniels, leaving him ever more vulnerable. Still, Percy cannot consider any possibility of his being wrong. Similarly, Maude, although she can change her life by accepting an offer to sell the painting, unauthenticated, for the "low" price of $3 million to a foreign speculator, is hell bent on establishing its authenticity because having discovered such an art treasure would validate her life despite the lack of any other accomplishment.

Despite the intensifying conflict between Maude and Percy, the tone of most of the play is that of a light, easy entertainment with deft satire and abundant humor. When boasting of his tenure at the Metropolitan Museum, Percy sniffs that "It's like the Vatican", and Maude replies, "You mean out of touch with reality".

Although events do eventually lead to a physical altercation, the prevailing mood of the last fifteen minutes or so of Bakersfield Mist is much more that of sadness than it is of conflict.

Director SuzAnne Barabas has wisely directed in broad comic fashion as Maude and Percy would otherwise be too obnoxious to bear. John FitzGibbon is particularly satirically sharp as Percy. Virtually every line he speaks amuses, as his delivery fully captures the comic satiric tone of the role. FitzGibbon delivers a performance so perfectly pitched that we dislike Percy to the same degree that we simultaneously delight in him. FitzGibbon does not stint in projecting the pathetic weakness that underlies Percy's usually overbearing behavior.

Linda S. Nelson does everything required of her as Maude. The role calls for a less over the top interpretation and is more stereotypical than that of Percy. Nonetheless, Nelson captures all the humor in her vulgarity, and her later angry impotence just as well.

Author Stephen Sachs has written a funny and insightful light entertainment which would benefit from the application of a lighter touch to its ultimate dramatic resolution.

Bakersfield Mist is (as they say in the movies) "inspired in part by a true incident." The title of the play is derived from the 1950 Pollack abstract drip painting "Lavender Mist" which is arguably Pollack's masterpiece.

Bakersfield Mist is being produced in a rolling world premiere by The Fountain Theatre (California), New Jersey Repertory Company, Florida Stage, and New Repertory (Massachusetts) as part of the National New Play Network's Continued Life Program.

Bakersfield Mist continues performances through February 5 at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740 Box Office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.

Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs; directed by SuzAnne Barabas

Cast
Lionel Percy..............................John FitzGibbon
Maude Gutman...........................Linda S. Nelson


Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


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- Bob Rendell



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