Painting by Numbers

Playwright Steven Dietz wields a brilliant technique, but fails to make an emotional connection in 'Inventing Van Gogh.'

Steven Dietz has crafted a play about, among other things, art forgery, and the play itself is a counterfeit painting, transferring a visual artist's techniques to the structure of the script.

Inventing Van Gogh, currently enjoying its world-premier run at Arizona Theatre Company, is the fourth Dietz play to be commissioned and introduced by ATC; earlier came an adaptation of Dracula in 1995, the intricate Private Eyes in 1996 and the yearning Rocket Man in 1998. Inventing Van Gogh boasts the most complex composition of the four, yet the finished canvas is more admirable than involving.

Five actors portray eight characters, each member of the present-time circle of a blocked painter having a counterpart in the 19th-century circle of Vincent van Gogh.

Peter Van Norden plays Jonas Miller, an art historian fixated on van Gogh and, particularly, the recovery of a lost self-portrait van Gogh supposedly painted just before his suicide, a work that perhaps never existed. Van Norden also portrays Paul Gachet, the doctor who treated van Gogh's mental and physical ailments during his final months. Gachet, a voracious art collector, came to admire van Gogh greatly, and was a faithful companion in the final period of the artist's life; he was also the subject of two of van Gogh's most remarkable portraits.

Each of Van Norden's characters has a daughter, played by Jennifer Erin Roberts. Hallie Miller is the art professor's neglected daughter, resentful of her father's obsession with a long-dead artist yet prone to short-term obsessions of her own with young art students. Marguerite Gachet is the neglected daughter of van Gogh's physician, another of the loved but largely ignored objects in her father's house, a human counterpart to the dozens of unframed paintings piled around the place.

Tom Ramirez plays van Gogh's sometime friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, a man of dubious morality spouting opinions on the lack of authenticity in so much of the work of his contemporaries. Ramirez is also Rene Bouchard, a contemporary art authenticator who travels around the world studying dubious paintings by the old masters and declaring many of them to be inauthentic--forgeries.

One day, Bouchard arrives at the studio of Patrick Stone (Lee Sellars), a once promising artist who hasn't been able to set brush to canvas in three years--not since the death, under unusual circumstances, of his mentor, Jonas Miller. Bouchard blackmails Patrick into creating the lost van Gogh self-portrait that Miller had spent his life researching. Patrick, it turns out, hates most art, including his own, and he especially detests van Gogh, "the most untalented and over-rated artist in the history of the world."

Given Patrick's antipathy toward van Gogh, as well as his knotty relationship with the crusading Miller, his possible involvement in Miller's death, and his long-ended affair with Miller's daughter, Hallie, this is no easy assignment. Inspiration of a sort arrives in the form of van Gogh himself (Dan Donohue), whose final days somehow play out in Patrick's studio, between sessions in which van Gogh and Patrick together dispute the character of true art.

Patrick and van Gogh constitute the final mirror-pair of characters in Dietz' scheme--Patrick, the skeptic who hasn't brought himself to finish a painting in years, and van Gogh, the man who sometimes produced a painting a day and followed Gauguin's advice to "look past nature into your own dreams."

Perception, truth and beauty are what Dietz dabs his brush at throughout this play, and the arguments are ultimately stronger than the characters. Most of the figures on stage are striving for something or someone they can't reach, yet Dietz never establishes a feeling of longing as well as he did in Rocket Man. "Art is the conjuring of absences," one character says, but Dietz fails to make absence palpable here.

Instead, he's preoccupied with "painting" an evening of theater. He often spreads words as thickly as van Gogh brushed his pigments. And, especially in the first act, he jolts from one initially disconnected character to another, one plane of reality to another, like van Gogh marshalling bright and seemingly opposing colors across his canvas. Scenes initially come in short bursts but grow longer as the play progresses, just as van Gogh's brush strokes tended to grow longer toward the end of his career.

These painterly techniques are echoed by costume designer Laura Crow, who dresses van Gogh's circle in pigment-dappled clothing straight off the artist's paintings, a terrific contrast with the hip, dreary black favored by most of the contemporary figures.

But when it comes to characterization, we get little more than pale watercolor sketches. Ramirez makes the most of his two characters, perhaps because Bouchard and Gauguin most fascinate Dietz as men linking theory to reality. As Patrick, Sellars has a few good moments but spends most of his time standing aside looking perplexed and whining an occasional objection, as if Wallace Shawn had just entered the Twilight Zone. The other contemporary characters are better drawn--Roberts fleshes out Hallie especially well--but most of the denizens of van Gogh's village seem off the mark. Van Gogh himself, especially as played by Donohue, is comparatively rich-hued, as if Dietz were inspired by the artist's many self-portraits. But Dietz seems to have been put off by van Gogh's wan, over-the-shoulder painting of Marguerite Gachet at the piano, for the stage Marguerite makes little impression.

Dietz should have spent more time looking at van Gogh's two portraits of Dr. Gachet, for there is absolutely no correspondence between the stock absent-minded professor on stage and the pensive, deeply melancholy figure in the paintings. It doesn't matter that actor Van Norden has to walk around in lavish chin whiskers, which Gachet eschewed; it's Gachet's doleful eyes that are the key to his personality, but Van Norden never has a chance to deploy those eyes except, significantly, as Jonas Miller in the moments before his death.

Yet this scene, like the others, never succeeds in engaging the deepest emotions. Dietz wields a brilliant, virtuosic technique, but in the end this seems a play about playwriting more than anything else. At one point, Patrick, realizing he has the form of his forged van Gogh "self-portrait" down but not its spirit, asks van Gogh, "How do you make your paintings glow?" That's the problem with Inventing Van Gogh. The play is an imposing feat of composition and rhythm, but it lacks that last element of human incandescence.

Arizona Theatre Company presents Inventing Van Gogh through April 29 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets range from $22 to $35, with various discounts; half-price rush tickets are available one hour before curtain. For information and reservations, call 622-2823.

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