Joan Allen, Andr De Shields, Hadley Delaney, Jeremy Irons, Aaron Lazar, Margarita Levieva, Marsha Mason, Michael T. Weiss
Michael Jacobs’s new play, Impressionism is a kind of rarity – a new American play opening cold on Broadway without an out-of-town tryout.
Reportedly, the preview process wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for the production.
Revisions to the play, including its shortening from two acts to an intermissionless hour and forty-five minutes, caused a delay in the opening date and fueled gossipy rumors within the press that the Jack O’Brien-directed show was subpar, inspiring walkouts and struggling to get a foothold in a spring season with its fair share of worthy Tony contenders.
Well, to take a step back from something is to know it better; that’s the central conceit behind the play.
And while Impressionism, a lovely romance intended for the adult crowd, would probably have benefited from a tryout period in a kinder city than New York, allowing for additional tightening and revisions, what’s now on-stage at the Schoenfeld Theatre is far from a train wreck. In fact, it’s a pleasant if slight diversion from a season otherwise dominated by heady revivals of plays.
The plot revolves around Chelsea gallery owner Katharine Keenan (Joan Allen) and her friend and employee Thomas Buckle (Jeremy Irons), a former National Geographic photographer, who, after a personal setback he experienced while working in Tanzania, refuses to take pictures until he finds “true joy.”
For what it’s worth, boss Katharine is a rather unwise businesswoman. Instead of selling the pictures on the walls to interested patrons at a fair price, she holds out for market value, hoarding the images because of their sentimental value. She and Charles, whose dialogue consists primarily of witty banter, spend their work days swapping stories from their pasts, sometimes expounding on the feelings the images evoke.
For Katharine, the four frames currently on her wall are each associated with a particular memory. The images are an aquatint reproduction of a Mary Cassatt painting of a woman and her child, a print of a Modigliani nude, a photograph Thomas took in Africa, and a painting of an older couple on a bench by one of her former lovers, the fictional Palmer Wilson.
As a way to draw us into Katharine’s situation, scenes set in her gallery in the present day segue into flashbacks that give us insight into her back story. As she relives the various memories the pictures on the gallery walls inspire, she realizes that looking at a moment from a different perspective – influenced by space and time – gives way to new and different interpretations.
On the downside, while her childhood wasn’t exactly picture perfect, and she’s not had the most successful love life, Katharine’s story doesn’t exactly make for the most compelling drama. She’s not really much worse off than anyone else. After all, she owns her own business.
Still, Impressionism ultimately benefits from its well-thought-out construction. If its premise sometimes veers toward movie-of-the-week sentimentality (the present-day scenes are significantly more true-to-life and compelling than the flashbacks), the shifting perspectives never give way to boredom.
The play is also bolstered by a top-notch cast. As Katharine, Joan Allen possesses a natural, effervescent presence. She ignites the stage with her easy humor, reclining on her desk, gesturing with a wide-eyed excitement as she recalls some story or another from the annals of art history.
As her foil, Jeremy Irons plays Thomas with a suitably bumbling British air. Though his line readings are occasionally garbled, he and Allen have a breezy chemistry without which Impressionism could never succeed. In supporting roles, stage vets Marsha Mason and Andr De Shields provide ample warmth and humor.
Impressive design elements serve the material well. Beautiful projected images of Impressionist paintings, designed by Elaine J. McCarthy, fill the scene changes, which are accompanied by evocative music composed and performed by pianist Bob James. Fluid sets by Scott Pask allow paintings to fly on and off the gallery walls, working in tandem with McCarthy’s projections to create a compelling stage environment where perspectives on art are constantly changing and evolving.
The play ultimately comes to its expected sentimental conclusion (which is fairly apparent from the start), Katharine having drastically reexamined her Impressionistic theories. But her journey, even if it isn’t particularly revelatory, is nevertheless a satisfying one. Jacobs plots his middle-aged romantic dramedy well enough that we care about what happens to Katharine, thanks in part to Allen’s endearing performance.
Though it’s not a must-see production, Impressionism is exactly what it strives to be – an old-fashioned tearjerker romance. If the overcooked love story aspect is initially overwhelming, a step back may just bring the realization that the play has made a real, albeit fleeting, impression – if the pun may be forgiven.