Bakersfield Mist

February 27, 2012

in Plays

Play (2011)
by Stephen Sachs

A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere

New Repertory Theatre
in co-production with Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater

Arsenal Center for the Arts
Watertown, MA

February 26 – March 18, 2012

Directed by Jeff Zinn

With Ken Cheeseman (Lionel Percy), Paula Langton (Maude Gutman)

Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman

Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman
Photo by Andrew Brilliant/ Brilliant Pictures

A woman living in a trailer park thinks she may have bought an authentic Jackson Pollock painting at a yard sale. An authority on forgeries comes to assess the situation.

Maude Gutman (Paula Langton) is a rough and tumble middle aged bartender who lives in a California trailer park. Lionel Percy (Ken Cheeseman), formerly a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, comes at her request to offer expert judgment about the authenticity of a painting she has acquired for three dollars at a thrift store. Is it in fact a bona fide Jackson Pollock? If so, it could be worth $50-100 million. The play depicts this meeting, during which the obvious striking differences of class play a significant role. However, as things evolve, more subtle elements of personality, intellect and relationship emerge.

This certainly is a season for plays about art. I recently saw the very fine production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, a dramatic comedy about the acquisition of a minimalist painting at the New Repertory Theater. Just before that I saw the Speakeasy Theater production of Red, a drama about Mark Rothko.

Bakersfield Mist is, like those other two, about contemporary art, and like them, raises questions about what signifies authenticity in the experience of it. In this case, the ante is upped by the concern that the work in question may be a forgery, extending the issue of authenticity from experience to authorship.

Bakersfield Mist is based on a true incident. Fifteen years ago, a retired 73 year old truck driver named Teri Horton bought a painting at a thrift shop in her hometown of San Bernardino, CA. After seeing it in the back of Teri’s truck, a local art teacher told her that she might have an actual Jackson Pollock on her hands. A forensic analyst named Peter Biro discovered compelling evidence in support: a matching fingerprint on the back of the canvas. Despite that, the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) declared the painting a fake.

At the outset, one is led to believe that Maude is an ignoramus about art, and that Lionel is an expert; things, however, develop so that all is not so clear as it first seems.

There is, as in Art, a dramatic moment in which the physical integrity of the work is challenged. That moment brings the ambiguity of judgment persuasively into relief, suggesting that Lionel’s expressed expertise seems curiously contradicted by his actions.

Limited to this one meeting between Maude and Lionel, this play is done in a single act, without intermission, as was curiously the case with Art and Red. (Has some focus group demonstrated that this is the theatrical time limit for museum goers?)

Stephen Sachs, the author, seeks to wrench a good deal of drama out of this interaction and to heighten it to the level of existential plight. The level of anguish depicted, though cathartic at times, does not always make sense given the nature of the interaction. Though Sachs has developed an interestingly structured narrative, the intensity that develops in such a short and specific span appears a bit forced. Not far into it, all sirens are blaring; it seems that the dramatic message might have been conveyed more effectively with a few short beeps of the horn.

Despite the negative judgment by IFAR about the authenticity of Horton’s painting, a group of Saudi Arabian investors have reportedly offered her $9 million for it, which she has (presumably for reasons of principle) refused.

The writing is sometimes self-conscious and less economical than it might be. The dialogue tends to caricature the obvious extremes of class and consequently seems unnatural at times. Much of Lionel’s speech, particularly in the beginning, has a forced patrician and sneering quality; one or two sarcastic lines would be enough, but it gets overdone. His constant sotto voce ridicule of Maude just does not fly after awhile.

This play is part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere series, which workshops new plays in a series of productions in different theaters over the course of a year or so. This one was done at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT) last year and was brought to the New Repertory Theatre under the direction of Jeff Zinn, the former artistic director of WHAT.

Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman

Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman
Photo by Andrew Brilliant/ Brilliant Pictures

I have enjoyed Ken Cheeseman’s and Paula Langton’s work at the Actors’ Shakespeare Project over the past years. Cheeseman is a talented comic actor and I have seen him bring a great deal of verve to a variety of Shakespearean roles.

Here, he is in a different kind of role. His comedic talents sometimes bleed through, but that perhaps contributes to a more caricaturish portrayal than might be desirable. Langton’s depiction of Maude is intense and compelling at times, though what drives her character does not always seem clear. That seems to be a function of ambiguities both in Sachs’ writing and in the intentions of Teri Horton, the real character who inspired the play. And this production tends to accentuate the melodramatic quality of the writing in a way that makes things a bit too blown out of scale.

In his remarks before the show, the new artistic producer of the New Rep, Jim Petosa, mentioned that Bakersfield Mist is likely go on to runs in London and on Broadway. Art plays have done pretty well in both places recently. The subject of this play is compelling and the narrative suggestive, but a bit of additional tuning of the dramatic conveyance might be in order to help it come across as authentically as possible.

- BADMan

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