Photo Credit: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures

Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 2/26/12-3/18/12,

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Watertown, MA) 

Audiences, like art critics, want to believe, but the New Repertory Theatre production of Bakersfield Mist doesn’t give theatergoers a chance.  Instead, the audience must suspend disbelief the moment we spot a central character’s obviously-fake tattoo.  For a play intent on debating what is real, Bakersfield Mist provides a poor facsimile of real life.

The play centers on a plausible and chewy scenario:  A trailer-park loser, Maude (Paula Langton), has summoned a renowned art critic, Lionel (Ken Cheeseman), to authenticate a Jackson Pollack painting bought at a thrift shop.  Some $50 million to $100 million is riding on Lionel’s opinion.  The answer, the play suggests, is much messier than checking “yes” or “no”, and both Maude and Lionel must wrestle with their pasts and their notions of art to view the painting.The subject matter could have provided endless possibilities, but Stephen Sachs’ script nimbly avoids them all.  Art forgery is a thriving business, ripe with intrigue, and there is a very uneasy dialogue to be had regarding class expectations and art.  But Sachs and director Jeff Zinn fail to create a plausible dialogue between the downtrodden and academia or between two human beings.  Instead, we are abandoned in that murky place between comedy and social commentary that is both not funny and not illuminating.

Much of this production’s problem comes down to plausibility.  In the first half of this one-act play, Lionel launches rude asides to Paula that are so loud that one wonders if he is a sociopath.  We have all been stuck in one-on-one situations with people we feel socially uncomfortable around, but few of us choose to come into someone’s home and repeatedly insult them loudly.  It’s possible to create a powerful three-dimensional who doesn’t give a damn about social niceties, but Cheeseman’s construction of Lionel is too uneven to suggest this. His Lionel runs on two speeds: weary academic or ecstatic art lover.  Lionel’s snide comments, therefore, just seem to be playing to the audience for cheap laughs.

And Langton’s Maude can’t provide any real motivation to make Lionel stay.  She is watery, unbalanced and wheedling, but she is never compelling.  At several points, Lionel nearly leaves, only to be stopped by Maude’s dialogue, but it feels like his only real motivation for this reversal is to stretch this play to 75 minutes.

Langton seems uncomfortable as the broken-down woman, and her stage actions are more curious than believable.  (Why, one wonders, should an chronic alcoholic gasp in wide-eyed surprise when she takes a shot of Jack Daniels?)  It’s okay to have an inscrutable character, as long as the audience knows that the actor has an idea of the character’s inner workings, but this air of mystery never comes across with Maude in this production.

While the set has a nuanced and textured feel, it also feels inauthentic.  The problem is one of era.  Scenic designer Jiyoun Chang succeeds in creating a trailer outfitted with thrift-store refuse, but it looks like thrift store refuse from the early eighties.  (One plot point relies heavily on Google.)  If Maude is as much a scavenger as she says, then her décor would inevitably look more modern.  (She could find any number of better televisions lying on the street.)  The set is populated with what one would find in a vintage hipster store; second-hand shops have more up-to-date, and sadly less interesting, fare. And if the set is supposed to evoke that she is frozen in time, the action doesn’t jive with the design’s intention.

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