Written by Michael Jacobs
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Starring Jeremy Irons, Joan Allen, Marsha Mason, André De Shields, Michael T. Weiss, Aaron Lazar, Margarita Levieva, Hadley Delany
Performances from February 28, 2009
236 West 45th Street
“Do you think you could be more bland?” is what gallery owner Katharine asks her employee Thomas in Michael Jacobs’ Impressionism, a drama about which one could repeat the same question.
Jacobs’ play certainly has high aspirations. Set in the world of art lovers and artists, its very title refers to the famous 19th century movement that made household names of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Seurat, Cassatt, etc. But by going further with his metaphor of the relationship between art and living one’s life, Jacobs stumbles into the trap of fortune-cookie epigrams that neatly summarize his themes. Chief among them is the dour Katharine’s admonition that “You have to step back,” in order to see things more clearly, whether it’s looking at paintings that might initially seem mere varied shapes and swatches of paint on, or coming to terms with your own life.
For all that, however, Impressionism is basically a sentimental love story like The Shop Around the Corner or You’ve Got Mail, wherein two people fated to be together eventually figure it out long after the audience has. So Jacobs writes dialogue where Katharine and Thomas dance around each other, at first avoiding and then delaying the obvious by discussing whether tape or string is better to secure boxes or whether raspberry muffins or coffee cake go better with coffee. He’s also peppered his play with flashbacks which show the protagonists’ earlier lives as (in her case) child and muse and (in his case) photo-journalist for National Geographic. But these are so awkwardly integrated that they seem more rote than real, with one unilluminating scene from Katharine’s childhood—where she witnesses an argument between her distant parents—staged to resemble the Mary Cassatt work for sale at Katharine’s gallery.
These artistic allusions become more prominent during the play’s increasingly trivial 90 minutes as ace director Jack O’Brien tries making an undeserved impression with Impressionism. He partially succeeds with Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections of various paintings interspersed on a scrim during scene changes—although too large, they certainly look enticing enough, making one hopeful that each successive scene will dramatize art and life’s interrelationship, but Jacobs always goes for easy answers in digestible sound bites that are all too reminiscent of TV soaps and sitcoms. Finally, the colorful slide-show feels like part of a lecture on Impressionist artists that was abruptly canceled after we got to our seats.
Eight able actors—led by the too reserved Katharine of Joan Allen and the more outgoing Thomas of Jeremy Irons—keep their dignity throughout. They even manage to inject humanity into the impoverished proceedings, which are as dry as the paint on the canvases and as dead the artists who created them.
originally posted on timessquare.com