by Michael Jacobs,
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Schoenfeld Theatre, New York.
Featuring Jeremy Irons (Thomas Buckle), Joan Allen (Katharine Keenan), Marsha Mason (Julia Davidson).
There is nothing there, no content, well not much to speak of, not in the text, not in the scene. But the stage looks gorgeous. The set (Scott Pask) offers the interior of a gallery in a smokey, pale grey, with blue lighting (Natasha Katz). Some beautiful abstract pictures in pastels are hung on wires strategically to resemble parts of an exhibition; ditto the gallery setting complete with a semi distracted gallery manager, Katharine Keenan (Joan Allen). The artist showing, Thomas Buckle ( Jeremy Irons) lunging about, hands deep in pockets, brow slightly puckered, expresses the point: will “they” like his work? Will he sell? In the best of his pictures, or of those we see, he is remembering a visit to Tanzania and a group of ragged children. His impressions of them, recorded on film, then recreated as paintings, and then remembered offer images in regression to the “thing” (person) itself. The concept is at least as interesting as the content of Buckle’s memories, that is the pictures, in the impressionistic mode.
Impressionists applied brief touches of pure color to canvas in combinations that the eye then arranged and identified. Both this new methodology and the artists’ choice of contemporary over conventional subject matter–take Manet’s “picnic on the grass” for example-- shocked audiences to attention. Something like it did happen during the period of about 1850 to 1900 when the new style and method completely altered not only ways of painting, but ways of perceiving. “Impressionism” only touches on this huge issue–how the style, or really something like ‘outlook’ of these painters completely changed our way of looking at the world. An extra layer of distance--to make this point graphic–was added between the viewers’ eye and the picture’s deep image. Put differently, in the act of looking and seeing, the viewer was directed by impressionists to understand a dimension of space inside the picture as well as outside, or additional to the picture’s height and width. The task added by impressionists almost suggests one of their aims was to puzzle and tease rather than merely illuminate the viewer.
In this sense, the hero himself, Thomas Buckle, provides a punning point of reference: as a photographer by trade he at once embodies and expresses the impact of the artistic movement that arose. There had been none so consequential as impressionism since the renaissance introduced commoners as subjects. But the play does not give depth and width to the idea . Buckle is not swept away on a new aesthetic wave. In this sense, this is a talk play that doesn’t talk. At several points, Buckle and the gallery owner (Joan Allen) almost begin to grapple with issues that were important if not critical to impressionist painters–for instance, how to shift their criterion, even more basically, their habits of judging a finished product, the picture, to judging an experiment or, say, a radical technique to catch color and light, or a method. Simply painting out of doors was an innovation. The subject is richer than the play allows. Dialogue stays on the surface, as indeed impressionism concerns itself with surface–the pun only partially intended here.
Jeremy Irons could have rounded his characterization, if the role had allowed. It feels, instead, deliberately thin, as if he were being directed to walk through it, or ‘keep it light’; put bluntly, as if there were little content to spare from the outset. (Not that dramaturgy can be quantified, but structure is always exacting; here photographer and gallery owner each have three scenes in the gallery, each has one of memory.) A man who has worked with native African children as subjects, traveled through Greece, been familiar with Europe, in short who is both personally and professionally well versed and experienced might have more to say about the world and his place(s) in it than Thomas Buckle has.