Friday, February 09, 2007

PLAY: "The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath"

Pierre Bonnard (John Shea) and one of his many lovers (Stephanie Janssen).
Photo Credit / Lilly Charles

Issac Horovitz's latest play, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath is a hither-and-thither period piece overset with scenes of life today. It's no surprise that love is just as complicated now as it was then, and the “dark and shocking secret” that the narrator explains will be revealed isn't much of a surprise either, especially for members of the audience already familiar with the famed artist Pierre Bonnard. As usual, Horovitz creates an uneasy mix of comedy and drama: the result is a passable but wildly uneven play, one made all the more difficult by the jumps through Bonnard's life, both forward and back, and by the metadramatic narration of the two supporting actors, Stephanie Janssen and Michael Bakkensen, who take on the various roles of this show. Though this is not a work of Futurism, the play excuses its self-referrals by means of Bonnard's belief that “We should always feel the presence of the painter, that the painter has been there. It is not simply a question of painting life, but allowing the painting to come alive.” I find myself agreeing more with Bonnard's mistress (well, one of them), Renee Monchaty, who replies: “I understand. I'm not sure I agree, but I do understand.”

Setting aside the weakening conceit of the play, the concept is pretty good. Pierre Bonnard may not have as rich a dramatic history as, say, Vincent Van Gogh, but that also makes his story fresher, more susceptible to Horovitz's transformative touch. The only problem is that Horovitz expands the history so far beyond the drama simply to throw in comedic lines. I don't regret hearing lines like “You'd happily copulate with a rattlesnake if somebody would hold its mouth open” or “He hates his wife and she hates him, but they seem to be quite happily married,” but at the same time, this isn't really what the show aims to be about. This is more akin to putting icing on a cake of bittersweet chocolate; it adds one flavor, but takes away from the whole experience.

The other rough part of the show comes down to the casting: on the whole, Bakkensen does fairly well transitioning from character to character, even if he has to cling to a melange of accents to do so. Janssen, on the other hand, seems to be the same character in every scene. While this offers a plausible explanation for Bonnard's frequent infidelities, it makes it a little hard to distinguish one lover from another, and their needs are often subsumed by the playwright's need to find a way of torturing or enrapturing Bonnard. As for Bonnard, John Shea begins as a very miscast old man, overpowering the lines, but when he starts playing the romantic artist, full of vanity and automatic pickup lines, he starts to soften, giving him just enough room to plunge into something deeper toward the end. Horovitz's directorial choice to underscore many of the scenes with an eerie little tune doesn't seem to help their acting, either; it just emphasizes the fact that there are places where the silence isn't working yet.

The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath is an interesting play, but it's an unfinished play, and just as the show begins with Bonnard sneaking into a museum to revise one of his own paintings, I hope that Mr. Horovitz will consider coming back to this work at some time to pare down and revise some of his excessive and characteristic flourishes so that he can get at the masterpiece underneath it.

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