nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 25, 2009
I enjoyed Impressionism more than any other new play on Broadway this season. The script is undoubtedly uneven, but the two main characters Michael Jacobs has created here are people I found myself increasingly drawn to as the story progressed, and as portrayed by expert actors Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen they easily become a couple to root for. Jacobs's key theme here is that art (and life) is what we choose to make of it—maybe not a terribly deep thought, but often the simplest truths are the most profound. I think it's interesting that Impressionism opened just a couple of weeks after 33 Variations: this play looks at art from outside in, while Kaufman's play does the opposite, exploring art from the inside out. It's neat that theatergoers right now can examine (as opposed to deconstruct) the nature of art in such fundamentally contrasting ways by seeing these two plays in theatres just a few blocks apart.
Oh, and did I mention that Impressionism has the one essential element that so many plays lack? I'm talking about its absolutely socko ending—a delightful, smart climactic scene, featuring a show-stealing performance by theatre vet Andre de Shields, that pulls together the ideas in the piece and leaves the audience satisfied, gratified, happy, and maybe even a little bit uplifted.
The exact nature of this ending, of course, you will have to discover for yourself. Here I can only tell you the outlines of Impressionism. The setting is a trendy New York City art gallery; it's exclusivity and also its barrenness are conveyed by the four paintings that hang on the rear wall: famous works by Mary Cassatt and Amadeo Modigliani, along with an arresting photograph of an African boy in a tree (the program credits the African photography to Ian Berry, Sean Crane, Dominyk Lever, Boyd Norton, Michael Rhodes, and Sean Sprague; it's exquisite), and a painting we don't recognize—an eye-catching portrait of an old man on a bench, apparently reading a newspaper intently, and an older woman (his wife?) feeding the birds, looking away from him. (This painting is, in real life, by Jane Snow.)
The gallery is run by Katherine Keenan, a woman in her late 40s who has resigned herself to a life not as romantic and full as the one she'd hoped for. She is the protagonist of Impressionism; in flashback/memory scenes we learn some scattered details about her that help us understand how she got to this particular place. Joan Allen's richly detailed, deeply felt, wondrously empathetic performance fills in the rest.
The other person working in the gallery is Thomas Buckle, somewhat older, a professional photographer who, about 18 months ago, returned from Africa burned out professionally and personally. He put down his camera then and became Katherine's unofficial assistant. Jeremy Irons makes him smart and elegant and instantly likable. He's wry rather than suave, which is unexpected. It's clear what it is that he wants in this gallery, but Katherine has built walls around herself high enough to keep her from understanding his interest in her.
Impressionism is filled out with characters from Katherine and Thomas's pasts and, more importantly, with a series of customers in the gallery who each desire one of the four pieces on the wall. Their stories and their connections with these paintings/photographs spell out the key theme of the play, which again has to do with the notion that each of us brings to a work of art everything inside us: so what I find inside a particular painting (or play!) is as much a reflection of who I am as it is intrinsic in the work itself.
Jacobs's writing, especially when it's expository, is clunkier than we'd wish it to be. But it gets the job done, because it brings us to this grand pivotal scene I mentioned, in which a young couple tries to buy the painting of the old couple in the park and Katherine tries to talk them out of it, telling them they don't understand it. The old gentleman from whom Katherine buys a cranberry muffin every Tuesday appears as a sort of deus-ex-machina to sort things out. De Shields is triumphant as this delightful, life-affirming fellow (and dryly hilarious).
Marsha Mason has less to do as another gallery customer, but she's a welcome presence nonetheless. Aaron Lazar and Margarita Levieva are sweet and assured as the young couple in that final scene. Michael T. Weiss and Hadley Delany round out the cast in smaller roles.
The one casting misstep is having Irons play characters in Katherine's memory sequences; he registers as too old for both of them, and it's jarring to have him portray the father and former lover of the character that his (main) character is in love with.
But under Jack O'Brien's understated direction, the play flows briskly, its obvious imperfections notwithstanding. Impressionism puts us in the company of people who love and appreciate art, and their enthusiasms prove infectious (and the representations of art throughout the play are lovely). Thanks particularly to Allen and Irons's open-hearted performances, I let my heart open to the play very quickly, and am very glad that I did.