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by Nicholas Wright
Playhouse Theatre
January 21-February 11
$24-$51 plus sc

Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton paints a portrait of the artist as a mixed-up young man. Wright’s Vincent van Gogh is an impulsive, goofy 21-year-old art salesman living in a London boarding house in 1873. Played here by Vincent Gale with great intensity and charm, he is not yet the brilliant, tortured painter whose work would become world-famous after his death. During this pre-apprenticeship, he comes to learn his true vocation without even realizing it.

The play begins as a love story but ends as a parable about the ruthless flame of art that consumes everything in its path, including the artist.

At first Vincent seems remarkably normal, a churchgoer who enjoys the sobriety of Brixton which reminds him of his Dutch home. He also immediately falls in love with Eugenie (Moya O’Connell), daughter of his landlady, Ursula (Seana McKenna).  But when he discovers that Eugenie loves Sam (Andrew McNee), another aspiring painter, it doesn’t take Vincent long to shift his affections to the mother.

Their relationship is compelling. He loves Ursula for her honesty and intelligence—and whatever their age difference, McKenna is very lovely.  Vincent also says things like, “I love your unhappiness!”  Turns out that Ursula suffers from depression, and though he shows no symptoms of it yet, Vincent sees “a mirror of my unhappiness” in “the darkness of your soul.”  Celibate for fifteen years of widowhood, she leaps at the chance for love.

But though she serves as his muse for a while and the sex is great, she can’t compete with his growing compulsion to make art.  Their conversations are filled with the future subjects of his famous paintings: starry nights, an empty chair, flowers, his room.  Vincent’s arguments with Sam about Sam’s working-class aesthetic prove more passionate than his feelings for Ursula.

Though his fireball sister (Meg Roe in a show-stopping performance) is the catalyst for his leaving, it’s the compulsion to paint, as the last scene makes clear, that drags Vincent away. Ursula’s devastation is merely collateral damage. And Sam’s sordid domestic fate confirms the rightness of Vincent’s choice—even though we see that it’s not really a choice and is driving him to madness.

I wish Wright had chosen to tell his interesting story in a more theatrically interesting way.  His style is realism of the most banal kind: people sit at a kitchen table and talk.  For variety, director Glynis Leyshon has them chop parsley, make tea or mop.  Set designer Pam Johnson fills the large Playhouse stage with the hugest kitchen Brixton has ever seen, its walls and floors cleverly covered in canvas. But given the insanely inspired expressionist painting van Gogh would eventually do, it might have been nice to see some of that style reflected in this play.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Sunday, January 29, 2006 5:12 PM
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