Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 24, 2009
Impressionism by Michael Jacobs. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Original music composed and performed by Bob James. Cast: Jeremy Irons, Joan Allen, also starring André de Shields, Michael T. Weiss, Aaron Lazar, Margarita Levieva, Hadley Delany, and Marsha Mason as Julia.
Michael Jacobs has learned this lesson so well, he’s not only implemented it in his new play Impressionism, which just opened at the Schoenfeld, he’s made it the evening’s raison d'être. Seven scenes mill about with intoxicating aimlessness, all while building to a finale that - not to mince words - is great. It’s the most frustrating part of an already maddening outing in pretentious presumption: You can’t thoroughly hate the journey because the destination proved so much fun when you finally got there.
So let’s talk about that closing scene. (Don’t worry about my spoiling the rest of the plot - there's hardly one to ruin.) The location is an elegant downtown gallery (the conservatively sumptuous work of Scott Pask), its walls loaded with paintings and one photograph, the running joke of the night being that the place’s proprietress, Katharine Keenan (Joan Allen), can’t be bothered to sell any of them. So it comes as no small surprise to her and her de facto coworker Thomas Buckle (Jeremy Irons) that, through a series of unlikely events, not only are the pictures suddenly primed to move, but they’re generating more conversation than they have in years.
You see, that’s what Katharine really loves: the stories and the histories that draw people to certain works of art. She’s intrigued by the millionaire (Michael T. Weiss) who’s obsessed with a Modigliani portrait of a sensual naked woman. She’s amused by the wealthy society matron (Marsha Mason) who eyeing a rare Cassatt aquatint for her daughter. And she’s, well, concerned by the young engaged couple (Margarita Levieva and Aaron Lazar) who’ve set their sights on a Palmer Wilson study of two elderly lovers that Katharine detests.
She sat for Wilson once upon a time, and is now convinced that the painting rejects all notions and hope of lasting love. Neither the young couple, nor the elderly baker (André de Shields) who happens by at an opportune moment, accepts Katharine’s explanation. They’re too enraptured by what they see in it to be preached to about its supposed failures, however well-reasoned they might be. There can be no greater insult to Katharine, who’s maintained an icy grip on her heart and her body since her parents was divorced when she was six, than to have her knowledge publicly spurned - in her own business, yet!
Every other time we see these characters, in whatever combination, they’re musing about the nature of creation rather than enjoying what’s been created. That can make good, or at least watchable, theatre (such as the Lapine-Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George). But it doesn’t come easily when mired in questions as insubstantial as whether Katharine’s parents should have separated, whether Palmer adored Katharine as much as she did him, or whether Thomas’s iconic National Geographic photograph of a young Tanzanian boy in a dead tree revealed more about the boy, his land, or Thomas.
Most people just won’t care. They come to the theatre to learn about life and how to approach it, to be part of a conversation rather than a sounding board. Director Jack O’Brien does everything he can to dispel the static nature of the show’s build-up, but his staging and pacing are unusually (and unnecessarily) stodgy; Natasha Katz’s exhibit-ready lighting is likewise distant and off-putting. Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections, mostly of the various works the characters discuss and digest, are stunning and colorful, but typically do little more than distract from all the strangely long scene changes.
Allen and Irons, the only two actors in every scene, don’t always help - they render many of their discussions and speeches in ponderous, explorative tones that seem intended to give additional weight to lines that can’t generate it themselves. The two attract real heat only in the last two scenes, which bookend the embryonic stage of Katharine and Thomas’s relationship. The actors are more successful playing direct feelings - or direct avoidance of feelings - than they are bantering about muffins, international coffees, Thomas’s nonexistent sense of humor, and similarly scintillating topics of discussion.
Despite all the time devoted to Katharine’s memory, Allen never really lets you see what specifically informed the current Katharine, which keeps her too cold to believably function as the play’s heart. Irons makes Thomas’s history far more vivid and obvious a fulcrum for his current cynical outlook, which imbalances the duo’s story but reduces the late-show intractability somewhat. Every supporting performer is wasted, as they do practically nothing but stare at paintings and distribute precious wisdom as anonymous extras. Only Mason, armed with a nutcracker way with a one-liner, comes alive in the scant seconds she has to work with.
Until, of course, the conclusion, when everyone - including and especially Jacobs - wastes no time turning this schematically stuffy and numbingly nutritious play into one that’s honestly, unashamedly entertaining - and perhaps even a little enlightening. It may be an example of sneaky showmanship, but it does work: both dramatically and to get the audience chattering. It’s unfortunate that throughout the rest of Impressionism that buzzing sounds a lot more like snoring.