Some people seek out their fantasy girl on the internet, but Jack is going old-fashioned in Artists’ Initiative’s new play.
The object of his desire is painted with loving strokes and framed in gold, and she’s leaning up against the empty wall of his living room. She doesn’t talk at first (few paintings do), but she seems to get braver once Jack’s relationship with his fiancée starts falling apart — and once he’s started self-medicating with painkillers.
A talking painting and drug abuse? Let’s call this one a dark comedy — a tricky genre to be sure. But here the team is up for it. As a production of Michael Perrie Jr’s short play, Sweet Painted Lady aptly captures the story’s quirky vibe with simple but effective design, a good cast, and some nicely focused direction by Lacy Reiley.
Baltmore-based Perrie, Jr is a triple-threat actor/playwright/musician, so in addition to crafting the text — as well as the sound design — he takes center stage in the role of Jack. It can be quite compelling to see an actor perform his own writing, and Perrie, Jr is up for the challenge. The script — a love triangle between a sad young man, a busy young woman, and a lonely work of art — showcases many lovely, small moments of domestic tenderness. It also, rather lightly and elegantly, touches on some undercurrents of urban anonymity, young-professional anxiety, paranoia, and isolation.
Let’s take a step back. Why does a three-dimensional girl (played with much grace by Emily Deveron Vere Nicoll) emerge from a two-dimensional work of art in an otherwise naturalistic play? I’m still not quite sure.
Sweet Painted Lady is on track to be a pretty great play, but despite the fun of exploring possible themes and plot points, Perrie, Jr doesn’t yet seem certain what it’s fundamentally about. Although the story’s several ambiguities are more often intriguing than bothersome, it’s hard not to wish that the characters would finish pondering the mystery of Jack’s unusual behavior and act to impact it in some way.
One wonders, for example, whether the Lady in Blue, as she’s called, appears to Jack because of his drugs or despite them. Is she purely a hallucination, invisible to Jack’s flighty fiancée Delia (Mo O’Rourke) and his snarky drug dealer (Anna Fagan)? She certainly seems to be wish fulfillment made flesh, so single-mindedly does she pursue Jack’s love and attention while Delia is chronically absent. Yet she only appears when Jack is on pills. Is she there to save him or to torment him?
Rather than seeing Jack decide and then try to move forward, we watch him waffle and implode. A bout of destructive behavior at the end of the show snuffs out the story just as the stakes are beginning to rise. Perhaps now, following such an encouraging and sturdy production of this draft, the playwright may find it interesting to write some subsequent scenes, continuing to excavate the emotional core of the play. And yes, perhaps Jack’s utter and ongoing bafflement turns out to be the whole point. Nothing is worse than paralysis and indecision — is that it? We’ll see.
Don’t get me wrong — I react, as many will, out of enthusiasm and excitement. Sweet Painted Lady is smart, well-played, and engaging. I only hope that Perrie, Jr is hip to the amusing parallel: like Jack, he too is warily watching a personal work of art come to life. So, for posterity: when your Lady starts talking, be sure to nurture her. We all go through a blue period at some point.
Sweet Painted Lady has 5 performances, ending July 27, 2012, at Mountain at Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC
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Hunter rates this 4 out of a possible 5.