Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bakersfield Mist at the New Rep

An authentic Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist

Bakersfield Mist, the new play by Stephen Sachs, currently in a "rolling" national premiere at the New Rep, is a long meditation on a single painting - a canvas which is possibly a newfound Jackson Pollock, or possibly just a piece of junk from a tag sale. Sachs has based his script on a the strange-but-true story of one Teri Horton (here "Maude Gutman"), a former long-haul truck driver who "bought the ugliest painting she could find" at a tag sale, only to discover a mysterious fingerprint on it that matched those of, yes, you-know-who.  The painting's general look and size likewise made the Pollock connection at least a possibility, and  Teri's long quest to have her artwork authenticated (and so instantly become worth tens of millions of dollars) is detailed in the amusing movie "Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollock?" (reportedly Teri's first response to hearing of her purchase's possible provenance).

Now, I don't know whether Ms. Horton (at left, with her painting) has "the real thing" or not - although from a cursory glance, her painting looks a good deal more convincing than the obviously phony "Matter Pollocks," which actually had a showing at Boston College a few years back, and fooled several local critics (at the Arts Fuse and elsewhere) before being debunked by paint analysis.

I was vociferous in my opposition to the Matter Pollocks, of course, but I think I'll hang back on the authenticity of Teri's acquisition, even if I have my doubts; the painting's no worse than a few Pollocks (indeed, some feel it's suspiciously similar to one in particular, No. 5, 1948, although a different painting, Lavender Mist, is referenced in the play's title).  And if Horton does become a zillionaire, she has probably earned it, one way or another.  Still, Ms. Horton - I think it's worth noting - has had some association with a well-known art forger (an issue which this play succinctly deletes), and those supposed fingerprints on her painting have come under skeptical scrutiny; I'd say the question of her acquisition's authenticity is at best still an open one.

The issue that occupies me as a drama critic, however, does parallel the play's theme; in brief -

Is Bakersfield Mist a "real" play?

And I'm afraid the answer to that question is rather obviously "no" - it's not nearly a real play - even though I'd rank it fairly high in the new genre of simulated plays that clutter our stages thanks to the "development" community.  We must have new playwrights, you know, to justify the developers' existence, and hence half the theatrical season is essentially devoted to their product rather than art.  And there are so many stakeholders in that community now!  So many artistic directors and heads of drama departments and playwriting coaches - all patiently waiting for their turn at bat!  Thus our seasons of "new voices" have essentially devolved into the sound of a cottage industry talking to itself - it's a miracle we ever hear from a playwright who hasn't bought into the scene via tuition, or tenure, or connections.

Needless to say, Sachs is deep in the development community himself - he's one of the artistic directors of L.A.'s Fountain Theatre - and so he knows his way around this kind of thing, and how to make something like Bakersfield Mist happen.  Not that he has no skill; he's certainly a deft weaver of exposition, I'll grant him that, and has worked up a heady metaphoric meringue around his central theme of authenticity. Sachs has also done his art-scene homework, even if he has piled just about every recent trend or scandal at the Met or Getty into the biography of his fictional "Lionel Percy," the art expert who arrives at Maude Gutman's trailer to assess her find.

Still, what's wrong with Bakersfield Mist is so obvious - and moreover so easily fixed - that it kind of makes you throw up your hands at the whole development gang; if they can't get this right, then they really are of no use whatsoever.  In short, Sachs gives us a diverting tour of various arty controversies, and he even diagrams a conflict for his leads - Maude wants her painting authenticated (even if she herself prefers sad clowns to Pollock, as below), but Percy's "gut" tells him her find's a fake.  The problem is that establishing a conflict is just square one in the dramaturgical game; you have to then hit on an action by which the conflict can be developed.

Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman ponder the meaning of art.
And here Bakersfield Mist stumbles and flails, even though there's an obvious mode of dramatic action to hand - Maude's potential seduction of Lionel.  What's strange is that Sachs actually loads his characters up with just the right metaphoric baggage to make this seduction his seeming point - but then he never gets around to it.  For Maude's scrambled biography makes her a kind of Jackson Pollock in human form; her life has been a jumble of misdirected, self-destructive energy.  Her trailer reflects that - it's an explosion of American kitsch.  Her son even died in a car crash much like the one that took Pollock's own life.  In short, she's the real thing, whether or not her Pollock is.

The audience can't help but perceive this - Sachs underlines it for us like a diligent student teacher - but for some reason, Lionel remains in the dark.  And if only he began to fall under Maude's sway (and I don't mean just her sexual sway) how brightly the exposition of Bakersfield Mist might suddenly burn, and how the play might suddenly swing from patronizing comedy to cutting-edge satire!  For what is Lionel's "gut" but a subconsciously class-driven mindset?  And if his inherent patronization of Maude were chipped away - if he began to perceive that she actually personified the artistic content he has devoted his professional life to  - who knows where the character might find himself wandering, or where the play might suddenly rocket?

But alas, no such luck.  As with the similarly pedagogical Red, Bakersfield Mist is little more than a potted art-history lesson for college-educated people who aren't, actually, educated (i.e., probably the vast majority of college-educated people).  Although for the record, I think the New Rep does an okay job by it (if only because I'm not sure what more you could do with it).  Local theatre stalwarts Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman are both amusing, but they sometimes look a bit awkward in their blocking, and only Langton gets beneath the skin of her character.  Cheeseman does have one comic aria which he nails physically - but nevertheless, his "Lionel Percy" never emerges from beneath the weight of Sachs' pre-fabricated psychological cliches.  And even Langton makes some rather obvious acting gaffes; a supposed alcoholic, her Maude nevertheless gasps in shock whenever she knocks back a shot of Jack (??), and she generally handles her million-dollar prize as if it were, indeed, only tag-sale booty.  And I'm afraid in his first local outing, director Jeff Zinn only makes a perfunctory impression - this show makes you wonder what all the fuss over his Cape Cod theatre has been about.

Oh, well!  Like Red, Bakersfield Mist will satisfy a lot of people; after all, it has been designed to do that.  I think my irritation with it stems in part from the fact that Teri Horton, whether or not she's a grifter, is obviously a great American character, and she deserves far more than development fodder like this.  What's most telling about the play is that in the end Sachs seems to have no idea why Maude won't abandon her quixotic quest, even when (like, I believe, the real Teri Horton) she is plied by offers in the low millions - a fraction of what the painting could eventually be worth, true, but still a vast fortune to her.  Clearly Maude wants to be vindicated - she wants to be seen as authentic (a deeply romantic impulse in the present day).  Too bad Bakersfield Mist, and Stephen Sachs, seem unable to honor her with an authentic play.

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