Unfinished Euphonies

It's Writing for the Stage, but Is It Playwriting?


Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixtonoffers a kind of same-only-different antithesis to Guirgis. In Wright's soft-spoken non-event, gorgeously lit by Peter Mumford to evoke a pre-electrified era, there is a story, only it's a hoarily familiar one. A young man finds love with an older woman, tires of her as he learns more about himself, and goes on his way, leaving her heartbroken. Wright's tactic to liven up this ancient sleeper is to make the young man a Famous Artist not yet aware that he's going to grow up to be one; for British audiences there's also the frisson of the artist being a continental and the love affair taking place during his comparatively obscure and brief sojourn in England. Americans may not feel so enthused about waiting all evening long to see if Wright's character will turn into Kirk Douglas's rendering of Irving Stone's idea of van Gogh.

Wright's script comports itself with great discretion. There are no glaring jokes about ears or sunflowers; apart from a comic character's philistine sneer at the budding Impressionist movement, there's no arch foreshadowing. There is a little discussion, obligatory in tone but a nice change for Broadway, about what art does or doesn't mean to working people as opposed to the rich. The lovemaking, though the usual hogwash, stays strictly within the bounds of the believable; the comedy of moral priggishness that interrupts it when Vincent's sister arrives from Holland rarely goes more than a step or two over the line. The problem, of course, is that discretion and believability can't make an exciting evening from such predictable stuff; camp, exaggeration, and free-form wildness would probably impart a stronger sense of how and to what degree love and England made the fastidious, repressed Dutch minister's son into the extraordinary painter whose images are permanently glued in the public brain.

David Zayas and Al Roffe in Our Lady of 121st Street: lacking body
photo: Joan Marcus
David Zayas and Al Roffe in Our Lady of 121st Street: lacking body

Details

Our Lady of 121st Street
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Union Square Theatre
100 East 17th Street
212-505-0700

Vincent in Brixton
By Nicholas Wright
Golden Theatre
252 45th Street
212-239-6200

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In lieu of outrageousness, Richard Eyre's production settles for scrupulously detailed realism, especially during the first scene, a homage to Mrs. Beeton in which the preparation of the Sunday roast is made far more exciting than the dramaturgic preparations for the passion and disillusion to come. Like the meal, Eyre's menu has a toothsome centerpiece: Clare Higgins as the widow whom van Gogh woos, wins, and ditches. Though inevitably a little studied after a year's run in London, Higgins's performance is an original, complex in detail and appealing in substance; her presence is fresh and strong. She deserves a less Cartlandish work. Jochum ten Haaf, opposite her, has apparently been directed to play Vincent as a matinee idol rather than a preacher's troubled son. He stalks like a cat (did van Gogh take jazz class with Bob Fosse?), gazes meaningfully, smiles, and generally behaves as though inviting the audience to come upstairs and look at his etchings. Sarah Drew and Pete Starrett, as the widow's daughter and son-in-law, join Higgins in staunchly resisting this slide toward kitsch, while Liesel Mathews makes what she can of the unbearable sister's comic relief.

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