By Robert Brustein
Vincent in Brixton
252 W. 45th St.
Box office: 212-239-6200
Vincent in Brixton is the creation
of British theatre critics, having been nominated for an Olivier
award for Best Play. It is another of those meditations on artists
and scientists (Nils Bohr and Walter Heisenberg, Albert Einstein
and Salvador Dali, etc.) that are currently engaging English playwrights.
The author of Vincent, Nicholas Wright, has already written
at least one of these bioplays, Mrs. Klein, about the
psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Here, inspired by some letters Vincent
Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo during the time that he spent
in London (1873-76), Wright has imagined a love affair between
the twenty-year-old Dutchman--not
yet a painter and still possessed of both ears--and his fifty-year-old
widowed landlady, Ursula Loyer, who becomes his improbable Muse.
The playwright's inspiration for this imaginary relationship is
a passage in which Vincent, citing the Gospel passage that "No
woman is old," interprets it to mean "a woman is not
old as long as she loves and is loved."
The story is competently, even sensitively told, and Claire Higgins
is giving a beautifully shaded performance as the dispirited Mrs.
Loyer, perpetually dressed in black until her libido is awakened,
her face a canvas of conflicting and suppressed emotions. Jochum
Ten Haaf's physically awkward, motor-mouthed Vincent doesn't move
us quite as much, or display much of the genius that was later
to change the way we looked at the world. If we didn't know this
shy, fumbling, scrunched-up lover was destined to become one of
the century's greatest painters, Nicholas Wright's May/September
romance would seem about as significant as Harold and Maude.
The play has been very sensitively directed, however, by Richard
Eyre with a talented cast. And it features a handsome period set
by Tim Hatley, complete with grainy period photos, sculpted wooden
kitchen tables, and a genuine antique stove where real food is
cooked in real time. The play ends with Ms. Loyer (again in black)
sitting at the kitchen table to pose for Vincent, looking somewhat
like the Woman of Arles. A lovely tableau with which to end a
play without much color.
(Robert Brustein is Founding Director
of American Repertory Theatre and Theater Critic of The New