March 28, 2009

Making the Wrong "Impressionism"

My friend Mary Anne and I were enjoying a light pre-theater dinner at Bar Centrale on Tuesday night when I heard her gasp. “That’s Jeremy Irons,” she whispered. And sure enough, Irons, the star of the brand new play Impressionism, walked past our table and out onto the street, where he stood chatting on his cell phone before ambling off. “I think his play is opening tonight,” Mary Anne said as she resumed eating her lobster quesadilla. “I doubt it,” I said smugly, sure that Irons wouldn’t be idling away his time so casually less than two hours before his official return to Broadway in 24 years.

I was wrong. Impressionism did indeed open at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre that night. Irons may have been wrong too. A little more urgency—both before his performance and during it—might have resulted in better reviews. Or maybe not. Perhaps Irons realized there was nothing he and his co-star Joan Allen, making her return to Broadway after 19 years, could do to save this disappointing romantic comedy cum art history lesson about a disillusioned photographer and a neurotic art gallery owner. Not even the great Jack O’Brien, who has worked Tony-winning magic directing such different productions as Hairspray and The Coast of Utopia, was able to salvage this one.

In fact,
Impressionism's behind-the-scenes drama is probably more entertaining than what eventually ended up on stage. Ten days after previews began, New York Post columnist Michael Riedel reported that theatergoers were leaving at intermission and the stars were writing help notes to the show’s lead producer Bill Haber. The producers (there are 23 of them) delayed the opening of the show for two weeks and collapsed the two acts into one. “That's one way of eliminating the mass exodus!,” wrote Riedel. (Click here to read his entire column.)

About half of the 100 intermissionless minutes that remain is told in flashbacks. But shortening the play seems to have shortchanged the photographer’s back story because it comes off as sketchy. We get more of the gallery owner’s but the chic outfits Catherine Zuber has designed for Allen made more of an impression on me. Marsha Mason does manage to add some bold strokes as a rich customer who patronizes the gallery. And André De Shields is crowd-pleasingly colorful as a sweet-potato-loving African tribesman in one of the memory scenes and a wise cupcake-making baker later in the play. Both of his roles were a little too stereotypical for my taste and De Shields may even agree with me (click here to read a Q&A interview he did with New York Magazine) but at least he and Mason, unlike Irons and Allen, were lively.

The show’s playwright Michael Jacobs is also making his return to Broadway with this work. His previous effort, Cheaters, ran for 33 performances in 1978. Since then, Jacobs has made a name for himself writing and producing TV sitcoms such as “My Two Dads” and “Charles in Charge.” I’m not a snob about TV and I like the fact that successful Hollywood people want to do theater. But Jacobs may have been better off with a more modest return that would have allowed him to build up his theater chops. Plus there’s an annoyingly preachy quality to his work that extends right to the notes in the Playbill. Does he really think he has to define Impressionism? And if you have to tell theatergoers how to think about a play, as his notes do, then the play probably isn’t doing its job.

There’s no denying that it’s great to see Irons and Allen in-person and they both look terrific. But most reviewers, columnists and theater-chatroom gabbers have been asking how these talented stars and their equally gifted director could have read the script and thought Impressionism would work. I imagine they all liked the idea of working on a new play (and hooray to them for that). There probably also was an appeal in doing a contemporary middle-aged love story (at least there is for me). And O’Brien, who was able to turn a philosophical work about 19th century Russian intellectuals into the theatrical tour de force that The Coast of Utopia became, may have been eager to attempt the same with a romance about the redemptive power of art. They might, however, have fared better with the latter if they’d all just met for a long discussion over dinner and a few bottles of good wine at Bar Centrale.

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