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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway: `Vincent in Brixton’

Vincent in Brixton," a prim and proper little kitchen-set

play about the early life of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, written

by Nicholas Wright, arrives in New York weighted down with British

awards most notably the 2003 Olivier award for Best Play. Would that

it be weighted down with substantial drama rather than just some glowing

performances to make it interesting or even justifiable.

Drawing inspiration from a series of letters Vincent wrote to his

brother Leo, and from a short memoir of Vincent by Leo’s widow Joanna,

Wright has filled in an ambiguous period in Van Gogh’s life that he

spent as a boarder in a suburban London rooming house in the early

1870s. As the play takes place before the unsettled but still sane

van Gogh had any inclination that he might be a painter, it is mainly

contrived to see the genius in the throws of youthful ardor amid the

dilemma of an uncertain future. It isn’t that Vincent, who, at this

point in his life is an apprentice art dealer in the family business,

isn’t open and above board with Ursula Loyer (Clare Higgins), his

comely widowed landlady. He has barely agreed on the room and board

when he foolishly admits to Ursula that he has fallen in love with

her daughter Eugenie (Sarah Drew).

This unexpected announcement from someone who has just moved in is

made worse by the fact that Eugenie is in love with Sam Plowman (Pete

Starrett), a long-time suitor who also happens to be a boarder. Sam,

who has hopes of being an artist, is as quick to accept Vincent as

a friend as Vincent is to accept the guarded cordiality of the generally

morose Ursula. But when Vincent discovers that he shares with Ursula

a "mental affinity" as well as her similar bouts with depression,

the passion lamp is lit. You could fool me. When Vincent’s abrasive

over protective sister Anna (Liesel Matthews) arrives, also as a boarder,

with an agenda that includes hurling accusatory insults at Eugenie,

whom she mistakenly blames for Vincent’s unsettled state, things begin

to liven up.

One might imagine that the playwright’s desire would be to create

some heady romantic conflicts and generate a little heat among the

occupants. For the most part our interest is directed as much toward

the chopping, slicing, dicing, and pouring in the preparation of meals

as it is in the somewhat studied conversations that persist across

the longest kitchen table in the world.

The talk may reveal a few secrets but it does not provoke much attention-grabbing

action. It takes a lot of suspended belief to understand how or why

anything remotely like passion could exist between the naive yet earnestly

outspoken Vincent and the responsive but nonplused Ursula. A scene

in which Vincent proceeds to unbutton Ursula’s bodice while standing

behind her is more ludicrous than lustful. It is the start of an affair

as dull as the dialogue that precipitated it.

Under the direction of Richard Eyre, the players are commendably given

to the kind of civilized acting that inspires nods of approval rather

than cheers of excitement. While Higgins displays all the attributes

of a fine actor in the role of a mature and sensual woman, and never

submits to anything like overplaying, her performance, already honored

in Britain with multiple awards, is, as they say, laudable. Mr. Ten

Haaf has the endearing quirkiness and clumsiness that helps make the

20-year-old Vincent more interesting to watch than listen to. It is

neither Higgins nor ten Haaf’s fault that their relationship plods

along a path of unexplained impulses rather than percolates with the

more dramatically revelatory.

While Plowman essentially fulfills his assignment as Sam, the would-be-painter,

Matthews pushes the comic aspects of the despicable cleaning-obsessed

Anna to make her one of the few unexpected pleasures of the play.

Tim Hately’s enviably sprawling, fully-functional kitchen setting

has what it takes to stir up a hearty meal. Too bad it’s never served.

Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Vincent in Brixton, John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th

Street, New York. $55 to $70. 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. To May

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