High-falutin’ ideas don’t make good theater unless they come with flesh-and-blood characters. That’s the problem with “Inventing Van Gogh,” the ambitious, highly intellectual play staged by Jobsite Theater: too many ideas and too little flesh and blood.
In Steven Dietz’s play, a contemporary painter, Patrick (Steve Fisher), is commissioned to forge Vincent van Gogh’s last painting, a self-portrait supposedly made by the mad artist immediately before his suicide.
Patrick’s life gets complicated by the fact that he is visited by van Gogh (Jordan Foote) himself. Flailing around like ghosts trapped in a time warp, the two artists spend two acts arguing about the meaning and the making of art.
Add to the party a third artist, the riotous, raucous Paul Gauguin (Ned Averill-Snell). He is the Falstaff of the play, a buffoon who gives you a post-graduate course on making masterpieces.
Gauguin, who in reality was van Gogh’s roommate for a short time, gets the best lines: “No one makes art for anyone but himself. Anyone who says otherwise is a hypocrite,” he intones. He dismisses the Impressionists as painters who rely on “optical masturbation.”
If three artists (two dead and one alive) aren’t enough, the play has pairs of 19th- and 20th-century characters. Greg Thompson plays Dr. Miller, Patrick’s revered professor, as well as Gachet, van Gogh’s faithful supporter.
Nicole Jeannine Smith is the love interest in both centuries. She is Haley, who flirts with Patrick, and Marguerite, who drives van Gogh nuts.
Averill-Snell veers from a hilarious, disheveled Gauguin to a 20th-century con man named Rene Bouchard. Sporting tufted hair and sleek Italian shoes, Bouchard has the lines with the most meat: “It’s not the painting but the painting’s history that is important,” he says, knowing that the art market thrives on myth making. Never mind if Patrick’s mysterious, new van Gogh self-portrait is a forgery. If Bouchard can create a myth around it, he’ll make a million bucks.
Jobsite’s five actors (including Fisher, Thompson and Foote, who are making their Jobsite debut) provide passion and expertise to their performances. It’s not their fault they are trapped in a play that is simply not effective theater. Karla Hartley’s usually capable direction cannot overcome a script that hits the same notes repeatedly.
Another, more essential problem here is that in real life, painters seldom are able to verbalize about their work — as van Gogh, Gauguin and Patrick do in this play. There is a reason painters choose to paint rather than to pen words: They communicate by painting, not by writing.
You are better off going to a museum to see a van Gogh for yourself.