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Colorless Van Gogh
By Robert Brustein

Vincent in Brixton
Golden Theatre
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 Republic.)


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