We all know what a Broadway flop is supposed to look like: a spectacle of near-farcical vulgarity. Think of the Earth, Wind & Fire musical "Hot Feet" or Farrah Fawcett's "Bobbi Boland" (which closed before it opened).
"Impressionism" doesn't star washed-up actors looking for redemption under a yes man's guidance: It serves up thinking-person thespians Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons directed by Jack "The Coast of Utopia" O'Brien.
The show references 19th-century masterpieces, not velvet paintings of dogs playing poker.
On paper, "Impressionism" is all class. Onstage, it's a stupefying bore.
The two leads dreamed up by Michael Jacobs embody middle-brow culture and aspirations. Katharine (Allen) runs a gallery stocked with expensive works, though she has a hard time actually parting with them clearly, making a living isn't a big concern.
Thomas (Irons) is a photographer for the likes of National Geographic. He's been sticking around the gallery for a couple of years, but still wears clunky boots, as if to suggest lingering globe-trotting dreams.
It's a setup ripe for satire but "Impressionism" is deadly earnest.
Katharine and Thomas have stupor-inducing conversations about such topics as cranberry muffins ("The cranberry makes the muffin tart, giving it a unique identity"), coffee ("Legend has it there was an Abyssinian goatherd . . . ") and, naturally, art (an exchange about Impressionism vs. Realism defies coherence).
Add Bob James' tasteful piano noodlings in the background, and it feels as if we're trapped at the most insipid Upper East Side brunch ever.
Not to be outdone, O'Brien matches Jacobs cliché for cliché the director lacks the imagination to make up for the material's literalness. So, of course, there are projections of tasteful pictures. Of course, Katharine introduces flashbacks by freezing and staring into space while the music starts again. Everything telegraphs SIGNIFICANCE.
Allen and Irons put up a stoic front but can't help betraying a certain sense of defeat. A hectic preview process, during which the play was trimmed from two acts to one, likely explains some of their tentativeness. But their limp performances also stem from the characters: The actors look as bored by Katharine and Thomas as we are.
Ultimately, the blame lays squarely on the playwright. The epiphany he painstakingly builds up to is typical of his overall formulaic grandstanding.
After playing an African fisherman in an earlier scene, André De Shields returns as the maker of the aforementioned muffins, delivering his Tuesday special: baked goods with a side of folk wisdom.
Katharine may be a cool sophisticate who's gone to art school, but only a man of the people can teach her how to really look at a painting.
If Jacobs has figured out one thing, it's how to be predictable and jaw-dropping at the same time.
Pithy little life lessons keep coming at you in Michael Jacobs’s “Impressionism,” as if off a conveyor belt in a greeting card factory. But the one most immediately relevant to this undernourished play, which stars an ill-used Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, has to do with looking at life as if it were an Impressionist painting.
As Katharine Keenan (Ms. Allen), the owner of an art gallery, puts it, none too academically: “You can’t get it when it’s right in front of you. You have to step back.” Since this observation causes her devoted employee, Thomas Buckle (Mr. Irons), to reverse on the spot his entire philosophy of existence, I decided to take it to heart and put a little distance, and much squinting, between myself and the production that opened on Tuesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, directed by Jack O’Brien.
But I’ve concluded that even if I were to back up all the way to the Hudson River, with half-open eyes fixed on the stage where Mr. Irons and Ms. Allen labor so valiantly, “Impressionism” still wouldn’t look credible. I mean this both in terms of its plot and as a proposition that would entice some very talented people and a vast army of producers.
“Impressionism” has already generated much drooling among the carrion feasters in newspaper columns and chat rooms, after it postponed its opening night (from March 12) to make changes that included the deletion of its intermission. But one could always hope that, just maybe, the problems lay not with the show but with innovation-resistant audiences. After all, the art movement from which the play takes its title wasn’t exactly a smash hit with average gallerygoers in its early days.
Alas, what’s wrong with “Impressionism” has nothing to do with the shock of the new. Its use of individual artworks as the setting for memory sequences (through which its leading characters recall traumatic events) is said to have confused preview audience members. But what Mr. Jacobs — a television and film producer whose previous plays include “Cheaters,” which had a brief run on Broadway in 1978 — appears to aspire to is one of those perennial sentimental stories of timid, wounded souls who must be shaken from their protective shells to embrace life, love and the future.
This means that Mr. Irons and Ms. Allen must spend much of the play looking hangdog, prickly and sexually neutered. Katharine, for symbolic reasons, can’t bring herself to sell her merchandise, while Thomas, a professional photographer, has sworn off taking pictures. (One presumes that they have independent incomes and that the gallery provides one heck of a tax write-off.)
Through gauzy trips into those memory-inspiring paintings (which also include a Modigliani nude and a contemporary work by a painter for whom Katharine posed), we are allowed to learn what has made such attractive people behave like such schlemiels. Katharine, for example, steps into a Mary Cassatt portrait of a mother and child to recreate the day her father (played by Mr. Irons) left her mother (played by Ms. Allen, with Hadley Delany as the young Katharine).
Between such unsurprising excursions — there’s also a side trip into a photo of a Tanzanian boy — Katharine and Thomas hold fast to their sacred morning rituals of coffee and treats from a local bakery, and sit around swapping banter. Mr. Jacobs might have had in mind the relationship between the store clerks played so winningly by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in the 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner.”
But Mr. Irons and Ms. Allen, multi-award-winning stage and film stars back on Broadway after an absence of two decades, don’t generate anything like the same romantic friction.
This is partly because their characters, as written, are so insubstantial, amalgams of standard-issue psychological profiles and peppy one-liners. Of course it doesn’t help that Ms. Allen, as the Eleanor Rigby-like Katharine, has seldom looked as smashing or sensually confident as she does here (in expensive-looking, form-fitting clothes designed by Catherine Zuber).
Mr. Irons, who was terrific as the British prime minister Harold Macmillan in “Never So Good” in London last year, is perhaps too effective in suppressing his considerable sex appeal, though his delivery of the only real joke in Thomas’s repertory is the show’s high point. Both stars are asked to generate charm out of thin air, and you feel the strain.
Mr. O’Brien, one of the most reliable and versatile of Broadway directors, keeps things moving fluidly if not briskly. (You can’t accuse the show of being hard to follow now.) The impressive supporting cast members, who play a variety of roles, include Marsha Mason and Michael T. Weiss. The ever vital André De Shields, the only one onstage who seems to be enjoying himself, appears as a twinkly, wise old Tanzanian fisherman and a twinkly, wise old baker.
Scott Pask (sets), Natasha Katz (lighting) and Elaine J. McCarthy (projections) deliver appropriately picturesque visuals. But the outsize projections of works by Renoir and Cassatt, among others, don’t do the Impressionist movement any favors, draining the paintings of their delicacy, as giant reproductions are wont to do. The overall effect is pretty but sappy. Or as Katharine says sarcastically to Thomas, “Do you think you could be more bland?”
There is much to please the eye in Impressionism (* * out of four).
Michael Jacobs' new play, which opened Tuesday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is set in a Manhattan art gallery and features works by Monet, Chagall, Picasso and other celebrated and lesser-known masters, all represented as lovingly as they are detailed in the author's stage directions. There's also the presence of Joan Allen, impossibly stunning at 52, and the still-debonair Jeremy Irons, appearing on Broadway for the first time in 20 and 25 years, respectively.
Sadly, it's hard to imagine what, other than the scenery, compelled the accomplished and appealing actors to choose this particular project for their return. Jacobs' own last Broadway outing was 1978's short-lived Cheaters. He has since become a successful film and television producer and helped create sitcoms such as My Two Dads and Charles in Charge.
Here the playwright is clearly intent on telling an adult love story, and the result is a good-natured but woefully contrived account of two artsy, alienated types grasping for connection.
Allen plays Katharine, the gallery owner, one of those polished urban women who have settled into a state of comfortably jaded resignation. The high point of her week is "cranberry day," when she can buy her favorite muffin from Mr. Linder, the local baker, who knows that this treat "gives his predominantly female clientele something to look forward to."
Irons' character, Thomas, is a photographer who works for Katharine, sort of. In truth, it's hard to tell what purpose he serves other than to provide a witty and genial sparring partner, particularly since Katharine is loath to sell any of the pieces she has on display. Her attachment to the art is explained, and other glimmers beneath her brittle exterior revealed, in flashbacks that cast Irons both as a former lover and as her father.
Thomas' own baggage is somewhat illuminated late in the play, in a recollection set during his travels in Africa, before he met Katharine. Alas, neither female character who figures briefly into this segment is a relative or love interest, so we're not encouraged to glean anything about his issues with the opposite sex.
Both lead actors seem stumped by their awkwardly, sentimentally drawn roles, as does their estimable director, Jack O'Brien. Irons manages to bring redeeming grace to the performance, speaking his lines with a knowing gentleness and exuding an easy, rumpled charm. Allen's readings, in contrast, seem breathless and strained, as though she is struggling to force more genuine life and nuance into Katharine.
The supporting players are similarly limited. Marsha Mason has a crowd-pleasing turn as a well-heeled matron, and Andre De Shields gamely does double duty as an African fisherman and the only slightly less cartoonish baker.
Like Mr. Linder's goodies, Impressionism offers warmth and sweetness, and has nicely tart undertones. But art it ain't.
In that jewel among teen movies, "Clueless," Alicia Silverstone's character uses the term "a full-on Monet" to describe an overstyled classmate. "It's like a painting, see?" she explains. "From far away, it's OK, but up close, it's a big old mess." From a distance, "Impressionism" must have looked pretty good to its platoon of producers, with a top director, two distinguished lead actors long absent from the New York stage and a plot about mid-life love to speak directly to the prime Broadway play demographic. But did no one get up close enough to read Michael Jacobs' pretentious bore of a script?
The central lesson imparted in this highfalutin schmaltz -- earnestly spelled out onstage and in an educational program note -- is the reverse of the full-on Monet. Like the late-19th century art movement that supplies the play's title, life can distract us with momentary impressions, but it's necessary to step back and absorb the big picture to appreciate the nuance and possibility of what's before us.
That perspective is lacking in New York art gallery owner Katharine (Joan Allen), who works alongside world-weary British photojournalist Thomas (Jeremy Irons), their days largely undisturbed by customers. Verbose Katharine rants about oafish subway passengers, cranberry muffins, packages tied up with string and whether God is paying attention to her. Punctilious, more taciturn Thomas lectures on coffee, interjecting mildly sardonic remarks that either puzzle or irritate prickly Katharine. It's all terribly strained in its cleverness and terribly dull.
Jacobs' "Cheaters" had a brief Broadway run in 1978, and he moved soon thereafter into film production ("Quiz Show") and television ("Charles in Charge," among other series). His overly precious new play smacks of sitcom in its articulate characters, who don't so much speak dialogue as deliver lines that overlap but rarely flow organically. However, the writing aims higher than sitcom. It's Hallmark sentiment masquerading as intellectual sophistication, with every one of its characters' stories and memories contorted into a laborious metaphor for love and life.
That might be palatable if we had some investment in seeing the central couple hook up. But Katharine and Thomas are a bloodless pair without an ounce of body fat between them; one worries they might snap something should they ever get physical.
It's hard to imagine what drew Irons -- last on Broadway in "The Real Thing" in 1984 -- to this starchy role. Thomas is clearly meant to be droll, enigmatic and soulfully scarred, but he gets little help from the playwright in setting himself up as Katharine's emotional rescuer. Allen is adrift as well, playing a character with no defining stamp. She's sometimes brittle, sometimes breathy and frail, and often whiny, her defenses formed by the rejection of her father and more than one potential lover.
Director Jack O'Brien fills in both characters' backgrounds via visual segues from Elaine J. McCarthy's projections of art works on a downstage scrim, accompanied by Bob James' doodling piano. The transitions could hardly be more literal: "La Toilette" by Mary Cassatt ushers in a memory of young Katharine (Hadley Delany) being bathed by her mother (Allen) with a ceramic pitcher and bowl (was there no plumbing in 1966?) as her frosty father (Irons, doing a lousy American accent that comes and goes) abandons them. Only Allen's tears indicate that any feeling is involved.
Images of maternity, childhood and budding sensuality cue their dramatic correlations in Katharine's life. (The less said the better about an atrocious scene in which Irons doubles as a bohemian artist who almost becomes her lover.) Thomas' photos of African wildlife or a doomed Tanzanian child set the scene for a recap of his harrowing experiences abroad. Their emotional and psychological states are also onerously mirrored in the art works for sale in Katharine's gallery.
The overwritten play's most engaging moments come when two minor figures are onstage. Marsha Mason has a semi-satisfying dramatic arc, playing a woman swathed in flashy furs and haggling over the price of the Cassatt aquatint while rankling at becoming a grandmother. And Andre De Shields adds warmth as the baker of the aforementioned muffins, who turns out to be a more sensitive interpreter of art than Katharine, for all her training. These characters at least bring some life to what's otherwise a dead zone.
Others, like a wealthy art buyer (Michael T. Weiss) who stirs Katharine's romantic hopes and a young couple (Margarita Levieva, Aaron Lazar) bursting with happiness and optimism, are just mechanisms to shake the central duo out of their inaction.
O'Brien has assembled a slick team of craft collaborators who give the pretty production a veneer of class. Distress signals went out when the original opening date was pushed back by 12 days after preview audiences proved unresponsive. The creative team used that time to condense the show from two acts into one, presumably to stanch the intermission exodus. But there's not much here worth saving; the play is a dud, as thin on humor as it is on emotional rewards.