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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

James Briggs
Photo by Russ Rowland

What's it like living in the shadow of genius? One assumes that Theo van Gogh, adoring younger brother to the famed Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, would have known that better than anyone. And judging from James Briggs's performance in the production of Leonard Nimoy's play Vincent, which is now playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's, the experience is about as fascinating and maddening as you can imagine.

Briggs, decked out in an earthy brown suit (designed by Barbara Pope) and sporting wavy, pomaded hair, cuts a resplendently average figure as Theo as he delivers the late eulogy his overwhelming emotions prevented him from giving at his brother's official funeral a week earlier. His goal is to inspire his audience (us, of course) to understand what the world of Vincent's time didn't, as no one else had the front-row seat to his disintegration that Theo did. "It's a burden on my soul," he mumbles in his preamble, "what I wanted to say and I couldn't... what I needed to say, what you need to hear."

The necessary information is that Vincent, driven roughly equally by love of God, women, and art (if not necessarily in that order), drove himself to destitution and death, taking up with the unsavory likes of a former lady of the evening and, later, Paul Gauguin, whose talent and zest for living inspired Vincent in all the wrong ways. In trying not to represent the world but rather capture its eternal and unspoken truths through his eyes, Vincent created works that assured both his early destruction (he died when he was only 37) and his ultimate immortality.

Nimoy's play, which is a one-man adaptation of Phillip Stephens's Van Gogh that was first produced more than 30 years ago (naturally starring Nimoy, who also filmed it for television), is constructed primarily from the two brothers' letters. It's not a towering achievement of dramatic writing; though thoughtfully rendered, it's more educational on the page than it is affecting, and thus requires a riveting star to elevate it beyond that. It does, however, boast a smart construction, in which projections of the master's paintings can be enlisted to carry much of the narrative weight. Such mechanics unfold well enough here under Brant Pope's direction, so you're able to properly absorb the methods, most of them unintentional, through which one brother's life informed the other's.

As written, the give-and-take is largely symbiotic, with the implication that Theo's fortunes—both spiritual and monetary—are bolstered by Vincent's achievements, especially from beyond the grave. (Vincent sold only one painting during his lifetime, and Theo died only about six months after his brother.) But Briggs alters the chemistry into a less obviously fair fight. His Theo, particularly at the evening's beginning, is deeply felt but literary, more of a librarian's disquisition than a beloved family member's setting the record straight. As the tale unfolds, Vincent becomes more violently imposing, as though he's driving his brother's soul from the inside. This inspires Briggs to increasingly greater heights of desperation, nudging Theo's relationship with Vincent ever nearer to obsession.

It's a propulsive take, true, and the result by the final scene is that it's Theo, not Vincent, who becomes the greater victim, with each of his lines unconvincing in their attempts to retrain our focus. When Theo says of an Ernest Renan quote Vincent admired, "This was the credo by which my brother lived... To accomplish noble things for mankind... and he did!", you believe the validation extends far deeper than merely an appreciation of, say, "The Starry Night." If this has the benefit of tempering the tut-tut lecturing feel of Nimoy's writing, particularly in the last fifth or so of the play, it isn't exactly rich or balanced: It's tough to avoid feeling that the story Briggs and Pope are telling is not entirely in sync with the one Nimoy wrote.

Even so, it does depict, with unusual detail, the cascade effects one person can have on those closest to him. Whether it's positive (success) or negative (mental illness), we're all forever locked in a battle with ourselves over the impact we'll allow that person to have on our lives. The answer in this Vincent is as appropriate and, in its way, enlightening as any, even if it needs to push the genius himself into the background to make it happen. If it's not evident that's what Nimoy was going for, it's not a huge stretch to posit that it might have made Theo van Gogh very happy indeed.

Through June 5
Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street
Tickets and current Performance Schedule: (212) 246-7277

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