Critic’s note: This is a very special play that Princeton audiences will enjoy — the time to see it is now, since it’s already been optioned for productions in London and New York. Save a little time to enjoy the wonderful Long Branch boardwalk.

Editor’s note: Director SuzAnne Barnabas writes in an E-mail: “We have a large number of audience members from the Princeton area, I think because of their interest in new plays.”

Stephen Sachs’s comedy-drama “Bakersfield Mist” is an out-of-the-ordinary, almost out-of-the-blue — but more importantly, outstanding — two-hander. Based on a true story, the play pits Maude Gutman (Linda S. Nelson), a foul-mouthed, out-of-work, boozing bartender and rummage-sale collector, against Lionel Percy (John Fitzgibbons), a snobby professional New-York-City-based art historian/connoisseur. Maude, who has remained living alone in the crummy trailer park since being deserted years ago by her husband and the death of their only son, has hopes for a better life.

Obligated to appraise a painting, Lionel is invited into Maude’s cluttered living room (a work of cheesy artistry created by designer Jessica Parks) only to believe after meeting her and looking at her collection of objets d’art that it is Maude who is more off-the-wall than the painting she wants him to validate as a genuine Jackson Pollock. It is clear that Maude has no taste for or knowledge of fine art. Yet, in a moment of folly she purchased what she considered to be a rather ugly painting for $3 at a backyard sale as a joke on a friend.

Evidently spurred on by the opinion of a local art teacher, Maude now has hopes that the painting might be worth lots of money. She is depending on its authentication to change her life that is currently drowning in a sea of Jack Daniels.

As robustly played by Linda S. Nelson, the determined Maude is certainly no fool and is able to prove herself more than a match for the doubtful and demeaning expert. Lionel is marvelously played by John Fitzgibbon with an air of haughty condescension that goes a long way to make him the perfect target for the determined Maude. Their caustic interaction is a fine example of how two excellent, well-cast actors are able to spar, bait, and tackle (literally) each other and also deliver two individually high-stakes performances.

Although the play is largely a verbal contest between a dismissive know-it-all and a desperate go-getter, it does segue into some very physical encounters. It quickly begins to delve deeper into the personal and private issues and losses that have brought Maude and Lionel to this juncture in their lives.

What is most delightful about their contentious battling is how many surprises arise as Lionel’s expertise and background in his specialized field challenged again and again by the no-holds-barred, standing firm resolve that is Maude’s forum and her strength. Lionel won’t even allow himself to consider the possibility that a genuine Pollock could ever find its way into this woman’s home. With his supercilious smugness plastered on his face, Lionel is as determined to prove it a fake as the insistent Maude is to prove it the real thing — with her own evidence.

What also makes “Bakersfield Mist” so astute is how a potential work of art is used as the vehicle by which two people who couldn’t be more different break through the barriers of class consciousness, intellectual prowess, and emotional pain. The laugh quotient is high. Half comes from Maude’s combustible personality; half from the repressed nature of a teetotaler, soon to be unwittingly lured off the wagon. If Lionel’s rigidity has been his fortress in the face of Maude’s onslaught, he also captures our hearts as he delivers an increasingly wacky, almost spaced-out soliloquy about his first rapturous contact with a work of art. You could say that Maude has the viewers on her side as they see how she artfully and calculatingly breaks down Lionel’s defenses and at the same time poignantly begins to break down herself.

This stringently funny play is laced with a snappy balance of down-to-earth and highfalutin’ dialogue, and buoyed by an undercurrent of bitter irony, a not-so-bad combination. Under the crackling direction of SuzAnne Barabas, it should create the kind of enthusiastic word-of-mouth that will keep the seats at the New Jersey Repertory Company filled for the entire engagement where “Bakersfield Mist” is having its world premiere as part of the National New Play Network.

It was recently optioned by multiple Tony Award-winning producer Sonia Friedman for productions in London and New York. Don’t miss this chance to see this extraordinary play during its premiere engagement. Also don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy a stroll (bundle up) on the beautiful Long Branch boardwalk with its wonderful shopping boutiques and excellent restaurants only five minutes from the theater.

“Bakersfield Mist,” through Sunday, February 5, New Jersey Repertory Theater, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Free on-site parking. $40. 732-229-3166 or vwww.njrep.org.

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