A miserable and lonely artist is invited to paint a Van Gogh forgery. He initially spurns the offer, but when he later contemplates going along with the scheme he finds his reality blended with the world of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and other historical characters. That is the intriguing setup for Steven Dietz’s Inventing Van Gogh, a platform for addressing Van Gogh’s life, the meaning of art, and incidentally moving along both historical and modern detective stories.
Patrick Stone (Christopher Herring) is an artist who has been blocked since the death three years ago of his beloved mentor, Dr. Jonas Miller (Lawrence Redmond). They developed a close friendship despite the fact that Dr. Miller’s beloved specialty is the tortured Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, while Patrick believes that Van Gogh is “the most untalented, overrated painter” in history.
A third figure in the complicated relationship is Dr. Miller’s daughter Hallie (Jessica Shearer). She resented her father’s devotion to Van Gogh, whose letters he quoted like scripture. She believed that Dr. Miller was more in love with his dream of finding a final lost self-portrait by Van Gogh than he was with her.
Hallie also was involved with Patrick, but leaves both him and the family home behind when Patrick accompanies her father on a final pilgrimage to Europe to retrace Van Gogh’s life. During this trip Dr. Miller commits suicide – or could he have been killed by Patrick?
Famous art authenticator René Bouchard (Brit Herring) uses the threat of a renewed investigation into Dr. Miller’s death to help persuade Patrick to paint a forgery of a final and hitherto undiscovered Van Gogh self-portrait. Bouchard will authenticate the work as genuine, which would make it worth tens of millions of dollars. Bouchard also finds Hallie and brings her back to be an unwitting prop in his story of the painting’s background.
As pointed out in the program Steven Dietz is a prolific and widely produced playwright, yet Washington Stage Guild’s production of his 2004 play Inventing Van Gogh is a regional premiere. This fall the region also witnessed the world premiere of Rancho Mirage at Olney Theatre Center.
The fantastical art drama Inventing Van Gogh would appear to be one hundred and eight degrees apart from the couples farce Rancho Mirage. Both works, however, illustrate similar strengths and weaknesses.
Dietz is a very skilled and intelligent playwright. He writes intelligent, witty dialogue and is adept at infusing humor into his characters and situations. An extended dialogue in the first act between Paul Gauguin doubled by Brit Herring, who is terrific in both roles) and Van Gogh (Ryan Tumulty) about their respective approaches to art and the merits of other styles and artists is among the play’s highlights. He also slips in some witty jabs at the modern art world.
On the other hand, Dietz’s work is not always closely knitted. The second act meanders and some of the discussion has too many general bromides about art.
Also, Dietz can use contrivances and short cuts in setting up dramatic situations and character relationships. For example, Dr. Miller’s statement to Patrick that Hallie is in love with him is not really born out in their flashback scenes, and if she did love him so deeply, why does she believe Patrick killed her father? Why would Bouchard approach an unsuccessful artist who hasn’t produced any work in three years and who hates Van Gogh to do a forgery, despite the fact we later learn he already has a proven Van Gogh forger in his stable?
Director Steven Carpenter utilizes fine performances from his cast and tries to focus the drama as much as possible, despite the fact that the playwright too often seems to have the cast speaking more to the audience than to the other characters. He is aided by a clean and compact set designed by Carl F. Gudenius and Sigrid Johnaaesdottir. Lynn Steinmetz’s costumes are well-chosen for both the modern and historical characters.
Inventing Van Gogh
Closes November 24, 2013
Washington Stage Guild at
900 Massachusetts Ave. NW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
A newcomer to Washington Stage Guild, Jessica Shearer, also shines in two roles. She gives Hallie both a worldly cynicism and an inviting appeal despite the fact that some of the dialogue given to her is trite. She is given a more convincing and interesting role as Marguerite, Dr. Gachet’s daughter who has a complicated relationship with Van Gogh.
The two central characters to the drama, Van Gogh and Patrick, are less successful. Van Gogh is needy, insecure, vocal, and passionate, yet somehow less magnetic and impactful than one would expect. For much of the play Patrick is given little to do except be frustrated with the situation and dismissive of Van Gogh, which hardly makes him a sympathetic protagonist.
Patrick argues in the play that Van Gogh’s tragic life and the abundant correspondence he left behind make him popular in the art world. The same may be true about Van Gogh as a dramatic subject. If you are interested in art or the historical Van Gogh, you will find this play especially stimulating. Ultimately, though, Dietz’s Inventing Van Gogh is more interesting than involving.
Inventing Van Gogh by Steven Dietz . Directed by Steven Carpenter . Featuring Brit Herring, Lawrence Redmond, Christopher Herring and Ryan Tumulty. Set design: Carl F. Gudenius and Sigrid Johnaaesdottir . Costume design: Lynn Steinmetz . Sound design: Frank DiSalvo, Jr. . Light design: Marianne Meadows . Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie. Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.