In his brilliant 1974 nesting doll of a movie F for Fake, Orson Welles profiled the Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory, an accomplished forger who hoodwinked fine-art experts and museums all over the world with his imitations of dozens of venerable artists.
Tales of art fakers are wonderful. They often feature flamboyant, lovable scoundrels, but more importantly, they underline the fundamental absurdity of assigning princely monetary values to piles of dried paint, and the inherent speciousness of claiming expertise in art. Plus, the charlatans’ victims tend to be the sort of people who can comfortably afford to get rooked. As St. Augustine might’ve said: Love the art, hate the art market.
Anyway, a forgery plot is one of three parallel narratives unfolding in three discrete eras in Steven Dietz’s convoluted art mystery Inventing Van Gogh. As interpreted by director Steven Carpenter in its area premiere at Washington Stage Guild, the 2004 play casts a diverting spell, even if that spell wears off a few scenes before the play ends. (It’s about 140 minutes with intermission.)
Patrick Stone (Christopher Herring), the prickly painter anchoring the story’s present-day third, hates that the “untalented, overrated” Vincent Van Gogh has been posthumously lionized (and merchandised), despite his hurried, sloppy technique. He’s “done for art what the elevator did for music,” Stone rails. Stone’s Van Gogh-worshipping mentor, Professor Miller (Lawrence Redmond), has recently died, casting suspicion on Stone for reasons I never understood. Stage Guild regular and Russell Crowe–lookalike Britt Herring (no relation to Christopher) shows up as a Frahnch-acczenteeed art authenticator who tries to blackmail Stone into forging Van Gogh’s final, mutilated self-portrait—a painting that Miller was frantically trying to locate at the time of his death.
This is all pretty much just the first scene. Your seat is quite comfortable, I trust?
Carpenter keeps the dense plot mechanics and temporal leaps clear, at least until the second act. He’s hampered, though, by a problem that he, as a director who works often with Washington Stage Guild, has encountered before: the room. Specifically, the raked, low-ceilinged interior of the Undercroft Theatre on the ground floor of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, which has the unfortunate tendency to make the stage feel far away, even when you sit up close. There’s not much Carpenter or his design team can do about this, but somehow it’s more harmful to thickly plotted shows than it is to airier plays.
Three of the company’s five actors are double-cast in past and present roles, with the other two parts handled by Christopher Herring and Ryan Tumulty, who plays Van Gogh. With this straw-colored beard and haunted eyes, Tumulty might’ve gotten the job for his resemblance to the ear-cutter’s 30-odd self-portraits. He’s awfully good, though, especially once he’s joined in the 19th century by Britt Herring as Paul Gauguin, the swaggering contemporary whose approval Van Gogh desperately craved. Stone’s assessment of Van Gogh’s brushwork is a good description of the performances: They lay it on thick, but they blend together to good effect.
I loved how when Stone and Van Gogh talk (argue, mostly) across a gulf of 125 years, the other characters in each man’s “present” think he’s hallucinating. This interplay is the kind of casual special effect that is among theater’s greatest attributes as a medium. Carpenter is wise not to call attention to it via spooky light or sound cues. He simply lets the scenes play.
Later, Carpenter’s restraint falters in an overwrought climax that finds Van Gogh and Miller on their knees at opposite ends of the stage. Both men have their shirts open, and Jessica Shearer, who plays both Van Gogh’s lover and Miller’s daughter (who is also Stone’s friend with benefits), is posed behind a scrim in silhouette. Then Tumulty and Redmond rise to smear paint, or maybe it’s supposed to be blood, on each other’s bare chests. It’s more risible than it is haunting.
You’d think this would have to fold itself up quickly after that, but there’s still plenty of play left. And a lot of it is good! As Professor Miller, Redmond brings a soothing gravitas to his summation of the remainder of Van Gogh’s life, which contrasts nicely with the fevered chaos of Tumulty’s performance. Carpenter’s production may have bit off a little more than it can chew, but as Dietz has Van Gogh advise Stone, “The summit of wisdom is daring!”
Was this coffee mug-ready aphorism plucked from one of Van Gogh’s hundreds of letters to his brother Theo? I don’t know, and I haven’t been able to find out. It sounds plausible, though. In the forgery game, that’s good enough.