The sources of artistic inspiration are mysterious. This is apparent in the Met's magnificent show of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, which begins with a room of work by his teacher. His genius, however, turned whatever instruction had been given to countless others into something quite individual and inimitable, as you see when you look at his earliest drawings. There is nothing quite so revelatory in Nicholas Wright's "Vincent in Brixton," which attributes Vincent van Gogh's explosive art to a brief stay in London when he was 20. There he boards in the house of Ursula, a widow whose daughter, Vincent's age, is having an affair with another boarder. Vincent, who comes from a strictly religious family, loses his virginity to Ursula, who also instructs him about observing the world around him. She describes, for example, her memory of a starry night that is clearly the inspiration for, yes, his "Starry Night."
In a program note, Wright concedes that his analysis is inferred from scanty evidence. The play is as thin and dubious as the premise. Neither does the acting make it more persuasive. Clare Higgins plays Ursula with an air of serene superiority that doesn't really jibe with mid-Victorian London. The play never clarifies where her worldliness comes from, but I guess it's axiomatic that Brits understand art and life more than those provincial Dutch. As van Gogh, Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf begins as a total naif and ends still innocent but without his goony smile. He gives no suggestion of an inner life that might be the true source of "Starry Night."
Pete Starrett is extremely winning as the other boarder. Sarah Drew makes the daughter sympathetic. As van Gogh's strident, busybody sister, Liesel Matthews makes clear how much she hates her character. The lighting is beautiful, and there is lovely, Erik Satie-like incidental music by Dominic Muldowney. If I were English, "Vincent in Brixton" might appeal to my patriotism. Perhaps for American audiences, it should have been changed to "Vincent in Elmhurst."
Unlike most artists, Vincent van Gogh found his vocation unusually late in life.
Nicholas Wright's play, "Vincent in Brixton," which opened last night at the Golden Theater, tells the almost forgotten story of young van Gogh's stays in England during the early 1870s, first as an apprentice art dealer, later as a schoolteacher.
What we know of that timecomes chiefly from the letters young Vincent wrote to his family, particularly his younger brother, Theo.
The letters show he was happy, with his thoughts occasionally turning toward love - thought there are significant gaps.
This is where Wright jumped in - imagining an autumn-spring affair between the young Vincent and the widow he lodged with, Ursula Loyer.
Ursula, shy enough herself, embarks on teaching the young and innocent Vincent the facts of life.
It's sweetly done: There is a moment when these two reluctant lovers stare at one another from the opposite ends of a long, long table, and Vincent says: "So now we love each other." Pause. Then Ursula says, quietly but firmly: "Yes."
But such magical moments are rare. About halfway through the play, I wondered whether anyone would be watching it, were it to be called, say, "Charlie Whosit in Brixton."
The incantation of van Gogh's name suggests Wright is offering "a portrait of the artist as a young man."
"Vincent in Brixton" is not about an artist. It is about young man who became an artist, and the play reveals nothing pertinent about that growth and transformation.
Richard Eyre has done a fine, subtle and unaffected job with these oddly assorted lovers, and the acting is indeed beautiful.
The Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf, disheveled, troubled and yet ardent, is splendid as Vincent, but the real impression is made by the matronly Clare Higgins.
Higgins, just making her Broadway debut, is one of the most complete English actresses of her generation. Here she is a woman roiling on the waves of unexpected, but perfect passion, lost in wonder, but still eloquently responsible for her younger partner.
Sarah Drew, Pete Starrett, and Liesel Matthews , as Vincent's sister, are all good enough, although the first two have difficulties with their accents.
The play has its charms. But if Wright intends to continue his semi-imaginary biographies (New York has already seen his partly fictional "Mrs. Klein"), he must choose his subjects with more care.
When the young man starts to fumble with the buttons of her dress, the middle-aged woman's face goes rigid, but her eyes are swimming with responses. Contempt, humor, hunger, incredulity and, through it all, an outraged glimmer of hope -- every one of these emotions registers in the infinitely expressive gaze of Clare Higgins, the splendid English actress who opened last night in ''Vincent in Brixton,'' Nicholas Wright's earnestly sentimental biodrama at the Golden Theater.
Ms. Higgins plays Ursula Loyer, a widowed schoolteacher in South London in the 1870's, who takes in a socially maladroit lodger from the Netherlands whose name, as it happens, is Vincent van Gogh, fiercely played by the newcomer Jochum ten Haaf. And when Ursula and Vincent finally acknowledge their attraction to each other, it's not so much a case of sparks flying as embers glowing uncertainly.
The scene of mutual seduction that follows is so awkward, funny and affecting that you can only be thankful to Mr. Wright for having given Ms. Higgins and Mr. ten Haaf the opportunity to create it onstage. It should be noted that much of the rest of ''Vincent in Brixton,'' which won the Olivier Award for best play in London this year and is directed by Richard Eyre, does not inspire similar feelings of gratitude, unless you're especially susceptible to carefully outlined, paint-by-number portraits of young artists finding themselves.
Still, who's going to quarrel too much with the production that has brought Ms. Higgins, in peak form, to Broadway for the first time? At the Royal National Theater, where Mr. Eyre was artistic director, Ms. Higgins delivered a succession of intelligent, carefully etched character studies ranging from the beleaguered Italian wife in ''Napoli Milionaria'' to the mad movie goddess of ''Sweet Bird of Youth.''
For ''Vincent in Brixton,'' she won the triple crown of British acting laurels (the Evening Standard and Critics' Circle Awards, as well as the Olivier). And the evidence of her performance in the play's New York incarnation, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, confirms that she was not overpraised. Assisted with electric vigor by Mr. ten Haaf, Ms. Higgins brings a bracing, gimlet-eyed sobriety to the kind of misty, autumnal role usually associated with four-handkerchief movies.
What with Kathleen Turner and Lorraine Bracco throwing off the towel in ''The Graduate,'' it's been an active year on Broadway for older, experienced women who have their ways with callow youth. But make no mistake: the widow Loyer is no Mrs. Robinson, no self-assured, skin-flashing vampire to smirk over.
As portrayed with surgical exactitude by Ms. Higgins, Ursula Loyer becomes a haunting study in a form of melancholy that, while in some ways peculiarly Victorian, should be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the effects of depression.
Even as Ursula moves briskly through her household chores in her heavy widow's weeds, it is clear that every gesture is an effort of will. And when things go wrong, the resigned, bizarrely satisfied set of her mouth suggests that life is only making good on what she has always known it threatened.
Such is the woman whom Mr. Wright proposes as an appropriate soulmate for the 20-year-old Vincent van Gogh, one of the more famously depressed figures in art history. Like Mr. Wright's ''Cressida'' and ''Mrs. Klein,'' ''Vincent in Brixton'' is an exercise in conjectural biography, extrapolated from the little that is known about van Gogh's early years in London, when he was working for an international art dealer.
The location of the home where Vincent stayed; the identities of his landlady, Mrs. Loyer, and her daughter, Eugenie (Sarah Drew), as well as another lodger, Sam Plowman (Peter Starrett) -- these details are all rooted in fact. Most of the rest of ''Vincent in Brixton'' is romantic speculation on what might have guided the young van Gogh, who at that point didn't see himself as an artist, toward his vocation.
Mr. Wright has accordingly shaped a custom-made muse for his blunt-spoken young Dutchman in Mrs. Loyer, presented here as a woman of black moods and transcendent appreciation of the artistic impulse. Initially captivated by the fresh-faced Eugenie, Vincent comes to realize his truer affections lie with her mother, leading to the fleeting joys of a relationship interrupted by the visit of Anna (Liesel Matthews), Vincent's nosy and officious sister.
As directed by Mr. Eyre, ''Vincent in Brixton'' is rich with in-the-moment authenticity, starting with Tim Hatley's flavorful period set and costumes. The play's first scene is largely devoted to the preparation of a meal in the Loyer kitchen, and the smell of roasting lamb enfolds the audience like a grandmother's embrace. Potatoes, sprouts and parsley are chopped and sliced, while information about each character is ladled out and stirred into a hearty batter of exposition.
Such conscientious attention to daily detail can feel self-conscious unless the naturalism of the performances matches that of the mise-en-scène. But if the supporting players (none of whom appeared in the London production) still seem a shade mechanical as they go about their domestic duties, Ms. Higgins turns each menial task into another glimpse into one woman's mind.
Whether chopping vegetables, scrubbing dishes or stacking students' workbooks, Ursula projects the concentrated deliberateness of someone for whom all physical activity is a provisional defense against despair. Ms. Higgins subtly prepares you for the moment when you see Ursula alone, with her armor off, sinking fast into the shadows.
Ms. Higgins has studied to be a Jungian therapist, and presumably she has brought this background to bear on the mosaic of moments that define Ursula's unhappiness: the way she startlingly bangs her forehead against the kitchen table; her habit of discreetly blotting her hands and brow with the handkerchief she keeps in her sleeve; her sudden eruption from social politeness into irrational anger.
When she splashes her face with water and then turns to face Vincent, still dripping, it's a poignant emblem of a woman whose self-disgust has taken her beyond vanity. The reverse side of that image comes in the second act when Ursula, alone in her home, hears that Vincent has returned to visit her. Though clearly all but paralyzed by depression now, she still makes a reflexive, ineffective attempt to tidy her hair.
Mr. ten Haaf's Vincent is Ursula's ideal foil, at least in the play's first act. Looking as wet and raw as a newly hatched eagle, he wears his tailored clothes like a man held captive by them. For all the character's abruptness, which can verge on cruelty, you believe, as you have to, in Vincent's essential innocence.
You can also sense his unconscious attraction to Ursula from the very beginning, in ways that go beyond the script's plodding establishment of the things they have in common. And when Vincent stumbles in on a weeping, solitary Ursula, his expression radiates not pity but a sensual empathy.
The ensuing scene, as acted, has the integrity of its heartfelt clumsiness, and its sincerity belies the artificially perfumed dialogue. This, by the way, includes the play's watchwords, which Vincent quotes from the French writer Jules Michelet: ''No woman is old so long as she loves and is loved.''
It says a lot about Ms. Higgins and Mr. ten Haaf's commitment to their roles that they rise above such Hallmark card gumminess. Vincent and Ursula exchange deeply poetic confessions about their morbid natures, but you're most aware not of what they're saying but of their unspoken embarrassment and anticipation, shaded equally by doubt and eagerness.
The resonance of that scene, which ends the first act, stays with you on into the second. This is fortunate, since nothing else in the production matches it. The well-made machinery behind Mr. Wright's revelations, of both plot and theme, creaks more and more audibly.
There's a rushed, let's-get-this-over-with quality to the scene in which Ursula and Vincent are separated. The concluding vignette, which reunites them, involves an artistic gag that takes itself very seriously and is meant to elicit gasps of recognition among museumgoers. And as fine as Mr. ten Haaf is in the play's first act, he doesn't quite project the scary mania that is needed to chart Vincent's subsequent decline.
That acknowledged, having first seen ''Vincent in Brixton'' in London, I was more than happy to sit through it again. It's not often that you get to see the kind of performance as a precision instrument that Ms. Higgins delivers, in which clear and simple gestures summon a wellspring of inner disturbance. Though Ms. Higgins is only 46, it seems safe to say that no actress is old as long as she's this good.
Clearly, depression is hot. Who would have imagined that "The Hours," which opens with the happy image of Virginia Woolf striding into the river, rocks in her pockets, would be a prime candidate for Oscar glory? Now Broadway has its answer in Nicholas Wright's mournful new play about the early years of Vincent Van Gogh, which arrives courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater with its celebrated London stars, Clare Higgins and Jochum Ten Haaf, aboard. A despair-based reality TV show cannot be far behind: "Joe Prozac," perhaps? "The Real, Miserable World"? "Are You Bitter?" For now, interested spectators can feast on the minor-key sadness on view in Wright's minor-key play, a tasteful but slightly soporific examination of Van Gogh's youthful sojourn in England, depicting the artist-to-be falling under the spell of his dolorous landlady, played by Higgins in a career-capping performance that won every prize going in London.
The outlines of Wright's play are rooted in fact. The young Van Gogh did indeed live in the London suburb of Brixton for some time while working in the London office of Goupil & Co., a Dutch art-dealing concern. He took a room in a boarding house run by Ursula Loyer (Higgins), a widow and the proprietor of a small school in the same street. And he did indeed fall in love with Mrs. Loyer's daughter Eugenie (Sarah Drew) and suffered rejection.
But Wright departs from the official record, which is skimpy in any case, in imagining the relationships among the play's characters, who also include Sam Plowman (Pete Starrett), an aspiring painter who also boards with Mrs. Loyer and whose love for Eugenie is returned, and Vincent's younger sister Anna (Liesel Matthews), who arrives in act two to ferret out the cause of the mysterious changes her brother Vincent has been undergoing.
In Wright's conception, Vincent's instant adoration of Eugenie is what brought him to Mrs. Loyer's kitchen, where the play takes place. (Tim Hatley's set has a nice lived-in look, but it disconcertingly seems to stop at waist height; designed for the National's Cottesloe Theater, where the play was performed in the round, it hasn't been reconceived for a proscenium space.) Despite Vincent's affection for her daughter, which he blurts out shortly after requesting lodging, Usula somewhat improbably agrees to let Vincent move in; she will later describe being moved by his anguish, never having seen "anyone quite so -- raw and suffering, yes, but quite so ruthless."
And yet despite his beseeching intensity, engagingly limned by Ten Haaf, Wright's Van Gogh is an almost comically passive character, at least until the play's emotional turning point at the close of the first act, when he confesses that his love for Eugenie has evaporated, and it is Ursula he has come to cherish, despite her age. Previously, the young Vincent is a pretty raw canvas. Indeed Wright goes so far as to imply -- a bit preposterously -- that if it were not for his interaction with the Loyer household, Van Gogh would never have become the genius of the brush who created some of the most indelible images in modern art.
It is not Van Gogh but Sam Plowman, for example, who extols the beauty to be found not in the images of decorous upper-class demoiselles that adorn the walls of museums, but in the back streets of London, in a "builder's hands and his broken-down boots." Later, Ursula will recall an emotional crisis she once suffered, when, "I'd look at things around me, perfectly humdrum things, a patch of snow, or a knot in a piece of wood. I'd stare and stare, and every bit of it would have meaning." She continues, "I'd look up and … what I saw was the way I felt. The sky was so black that there seemed to be no end to it, but it was dotted with these brilliant, blazing lights." Sound familiar? It is a relief to report that at no point does Eugenie bound into the kitchen with an armful of sunflowers, chirping, "Lovely, aren't they?"
Elsewhere, the writing is more subtle -- at times to the point of obscurity. The genesis of Ursula's tightly controlled despair is never fully illuminated. The loss of her husband 15 years previously is only alluded to briefly, and while Ursula is occasionally eloquent on the subject of her feelings, she only speaks of causes in the play's last scene. Vincent, who had abruptly abandoned the Loyer menage more than a year before, has returned for a visit. He has been fired from Goupil & Co., put down the sketching pad he'd begun to use under Ursula's encouragement, and has now become a kind of religious tramp. In a fit of rage and disappointment, Ursula cries, "All I wanted was -- someday, somehow -- to be the cause of something remarkable."
Vincent reassures her, after a fashion, enthusiastically revealing that ever since he left her household, "I've lived in sorrow. This is your gift to me. It never leaves me now." And so an artist is born, according to traditionally romantic theories about creative inspiration, which "Vincent in Brixton," in its self-effacingly modest way, thoroughly endorses: Talent plus despair equals genius.
It cannot have been easy to communicate the particular anguish of a frustrated muse -- a muse manquee! -- and Higgins' meticulous performance deserves to be celebrated for its quietly contained intensity. Bathed in Peter Mumford's exquisite lighting -- a Rembrandtesque gold to match the warmth of the quietly acknowledged love between Ursula and Vincent in act one, a chilly mix of shadows for the play's somber final minutes -- Higgins' face expresses even the slightest changes in feeling with remarkable subtlety and clarity, keeping us aware of the roiling heart beneath the black linen widow's weeds. But to admire acting on a moment-by-moment basis is also to be aware of it. As impeccable as it is, Higgins' performance feels calculated down to its every detail, from the smallest hesitation over a teacup to the sudden outbursts of raw despair. The spontaneous feeling -- or the illusion of it, anyway -- that can sweep us imperceptibly into the world unfolding onstage is not in evidence.
In that sense, Higgins' turn is certainly of a piece with Richard Eyre's production, which is likewise meticulously crafted almost to a fault. The pacing is sometimes self-consciously Chekhovian, with palpably fraught pauses, elongated looks full of unspoken emotion, and scene endings drawn out endlessly lest we miss any of the understated currents of feeling oozing around Mrs. Loyer's kitchen.
The play's final moments are a case in point. While Eugenie and Sam exchange spousal gripes and small talk, Ursula places Vincent's boots on the worn wooden table, stuffing them with newspaper for insulation. In the flickering firelight they catch Vincent's eye. He somberly takes up a pad and begins sketching. Ursula looks on with quiet satisfaction, but despite this apparent indication that her longed-for destiny may yet be fulfilled, she doesn't crack a smile, and risk chasing away her protege's demons. Misery loves company, after all.