People who love theater tend to be suckers for shows about the making or value of art. I’m one of them. And Austin Pendleton seems to be one too. A few years ago, he wrote a play called Orson’s Shadow, based on the events surrounding a 1960 production of Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros that was directed by Orson Welles and starred Laurence Olivier and his soon-to-be-wife Joan Plowright. And now Pendleton is starring in another docu-drama called Another Vermeer.
The new show isn’t about the famous 17th century artist but a lesser-known 20th century Dutch painter named Han van Meegeren who was charged with treason after World War II for collaborating with the Germans by selling a previously undiscovered Vermeer to Hitler’s right-hand man Hermann Göring. Van Meegeren defended himself by saying that he had not plundered his country’s cultural patrimony but had instead duped the Nazi with forgeries of Old Masters that he had begun to make when critics turned away from the similarly-styled works he created under his own name in favor of Cubist, Surrealist and other more modern art.
In real-life, an international panel of experts from the Netherlands, Belgium and England analyzed the painting and concluded that it was van Meegeren’s work. But in the play, written by Bruce J. Robinson, the only way van Meegeren can keep himself from the gallows is by creating another work of the same quality as the disputed Vermeer. It’s a great set-up for a play. But, alas, the Abingdon Theatre Company’s production is something of a let down.
The company’s small black box theater doesn’t help. “They’re all good seats,” the usher said as she showed me to mine. Which is true in its way but the space is also so intimate that when an elderly man sitting in the front row at the performance I attended dropped his program and was too frail to bend down and pick it up, the actors had to keep stepping over the pages. At one point, an actor’s entrance was delayed because the same old guy was making his way back from the restroom along the aisle the actors used to enter and exit the stage area. But I think the real problem rests with the show’s director Kelly Morgan, who seems to crank everything up to such a frenetic level and to stuff in so much stage business that the whole thing verges on parody.
Pendleton, a man of many talents, teaches directing at the New School and I wish he’d done some tutoring here because there are some moments, such as a quietly intense confrontation between his van Meegeren and the critic who is his nemesis, played with just the right pompous brio by Thom Christopher, that provide a glimpse of the thought-provoking drama that this show might have been.
The show's run ends on Sunday but it would be great to see at some later time what another director might do with it. Actors move from show to show, honing their skills as they go. Directors get to develop their chops as they work on a succession of different productions. But playwrights are dependent on having others perform their works and there are far too few of those opportunities for new playwrights. So Abingdon, which clearly cares about the making of art, gets points for continuing to give beginning playwrights a place to show their work and for charging just $20 a ticket so that people will take a chance and see it. I just wish Another Vermeer could have been displayed better.
I hate to admit this but I hadn't even realized Austin Pendleton was in yet another show Off-Broadway. Have to just say that he has manifested my vision of what Woody Allen would have been like on stage. Too bad the material isn't quite up to par, but I enjoy watching Pendleton anywhere, anytime.
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