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Paulanne Simmons

Art Matters

Justin Grace and Austin Pendleton. Photo by Kim T. Sharp.

Directed by Kelly Morgan
Abingdon's Dorothy Strelsin Theatre
312 West 36th St. between 8th and 9th avenues, 1st floor
From March 29, 200
Tues. thru Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sat. matinee 2 p.m., Sun. matinee 3 p.m
$20 (212) 868-4444
Closes April 20, 2008
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 6, 2008

Bruce J. Robinson's "Another Vermeer" may be the most literate play I have seen this year. Based on the true story of noted Dutch forger Han Van Meegeren, who was thrown into jail after World War II, when it was discovered he sold a Vermeer to Hermann Goring, it asks many perceptive questions about the nature of art and its relationship to the artist and society.

"Another Vermeer" takes place in Meegeren's tiny prison cell, which gives director Kelly Morgan the formidable challenge of preventing the play from becoming more of a dialogue than a drama. This is accomplished to some degree by keeping the audience in suspense as to what Van Meegeren is up to.

But eventually it becomes clear that Van Meegeren (Austin Pendleton) is defending himself against the charge of treason with the claim that the painting he sold was a forgery. To prove it, he is attempting to produce another painting so like a Vermeer no one will be able to tell the difference. Van Meegeren is indeed desperate; if he doesn't succeed, he faces the death sentence.

Justin Grace plays Bram Van Ter Horst, an earnest young prison guard who is sent in to be Van Meegeren's model for Jesus in the new picture. And Christian Pederson is Lt. Thomas Keller, the American officer who is supervising the affair. But all the other characters are phantoms of Van Meegeren's imagination.

At first Van Meegeren calls upon Jan Vermeer (Dan Cordle) himself to aid him in this difficult endeavor, an odd request considering the way Van Meegeren had abused the deceased painter. Then he appeals to his former art teacher, Bartus Korteling (Cordle again), who remembers Van Meegeren fondly but doesn't offer much by way of advice.

Finally, Van Meegeren is visited by Dr. Abraham Bredius, a famed art critic, whose unfavorable reviews of Van Meegeren's work first led the young artist into forgery. In fact, Van Meegeren's goal in the beginning was merely to show Bredius up as a fool. But the forger soon fell prey to his own success, lured into more crime by his taste for women, drugs and a life of luxury and self-indulgence.

Meegeren's heated conversation with Bredus is the central scene of the play. It is here that art is explored and the author asks his most intriguing questions: Are crazy people driven to art or does art drive people crazy? And the overriding, implicit, Which is worse, to forge a masterpiece or to sell one?

Austin Pendleton, Tom Christopher and Justin
Grace .
Photo by Kim T. Sharp.

"Another Vermeer" works as well as it does in large part thanks to excellent performances by Pendleton in the lead and Grace and Cordle in their supporting roles. Grace, in his innocence, and Cordle, in his imperious certitude and gravity, are both excellent contrasts to the flip and venal Pendleton.

But after a while, language, however fine it is, is not enough. Nor does Morgan's use of offstage voices and dramatic lighting do the job. We need a reason for wanting Meegeren (a witty, but otherwise repulsive character) to live. And we need a reason for believing his crime (either the sale or the forgery) would have been heinous enough to merit death.

In Pendleton's last, overly long monologue, Robinson tries to tell us why art matters so much. But his heartfelt declaration seems tacked-on coming from the lips of such a reprobate.

Still, there is much to admire in "Another Vermeer." It may not be a perfect work of art, but it is genuine, and if not a masterpiece, it is certainly a creditable effort well worth seeing.


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