Monday, April 07, 2008

Another Vermeer

As the architect of the Third Reich’s systematic looting operation, Hermann Goring confiscated many of Europe’s great artistic treasures, but his troops were not discriminating, filling enormous warehouses with art and furniture plundered from Jewish homes and museums (as seen in the documentary The Rape of Europa). He would have been susceptible to a con-artist like Han Van Meegeren offering him a crudely forged Vermeer. At least, that is what Van Meegeren must prove or face far worse punishment as a collaborator in Another Vermeer, Bruce J. Robinson’s new fact-based drama opening at the Abingdon last night.

The real life artist, dealer, and forger Van Meegeren did indeed face charges of collaborating and selling Dutch cultural property to the enemy. To prove his innocence of the more serious charges he must convince the court that he forged Goring’s Vermeer. To do so, he must now forge another Vermeer in his cell, as he hopes evidence of his past Vermeer forgeries will be discovered to buttress his case.

Austin Pendleton, the instantly recognizable character actor whose films includes A Beautiful Mind and Catch-22, plays the drug and absinthe addicted Van Meegeren, as he desperately paints his final work, Jesus Among the Doctors, while confined in his prison cell. As he struggles with his canvas and the reluctant guard assigned as his model, the forger sees visions of Vermeer, his teacher Bartus Korteling, and Dr. Abraham Bredius, his art critic-nemesis. He also labors under the intimidating inspections of Lt. Keller, the American officer assigned to the case.

Vermeer probably spends too much time on the courtship between Van Meegeren and his Dutch guard, and the early appearance of Vermeer is a bit awkward. However, when Van Meegeren spars with Lt. Keller and Dr. Bredius, the play seriously turns up the intensity. Van Meegeren is a small, deeply flawed man. Keller and Bredius, played by Christian Pedersen and Thom Christopher respectively, tower over him. Both are dominating physical presences, particularly in the Abingson’s Dorothy Strelsin Theatre.

Vermeer does not let Van Meegeren simply play the victim. In searing exchanges, the vision of his mentor (played by Dan Cordle) and Lt. Keller devastatingly critique his wasted talents and unfulfilled potential. Perhaps most effective though, is the arrival of Bredius in the flesh. Rather than merely portray him as the stock villainous critic, Robinson actually gives him some interesting points to make, including (perhaps shrewdly) a defense of criticism. All the while, Pendleton is quite compelling as the world-weary forger forced to come to terms with a life of regrets.

Staged in an intimate space as one continuous act, the production nicely conveys a sense of claustrophobia. It offers sharp observations about the nature of art and some strong performances by Pendleton, Christopher, Cordle, and Pedersen. It is an intellectually stimulating play, with a surprisingly honest emotional payoff. It opened Sunday the 6th and plays through the 20th.