PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Impressionism — The Arty and the Smarty
By Harry Haun
My first-night impression of Impressionism on March 24 — from the “unique” vantage point of Row AA on the far right of the Schoenfeld Theatre, almost eye-level to the stage — was that I would dearly love an opportunity to follow the good advice which playwright Michael Jacobs kept handing his characters: You have to step back from a painting (and, metaphorically, the travail of life) in order to see the whole picture.
From where I sat, there seemed to be some dazzling projections (from Elaine J. McCarthy) and lighting effects (by the great Natasha Katz) splashed across the scrim during the eight scene changes, but I couldn’t swear to it. (Less close is better for this experience, if you want to get an eyeful of the projected world-famous paintings.) However, I can attest to being star-struck by a center-stage Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen.
Irons represents the realistic view of life, a war-worn photojournalist pretty shot himself, back home to heal from all he has seen and recorded. Allen advocates the impressionistic view of life, a self-contained art-gallery proprietress holding on to her paintings at all costs (in psychobabble parlance, her art is her “baggage”).
The opposites attract and spend the rest of the play — between sales — falling in love and trying to convert each other to their different views of life. The classiest kind of parry and thrust is called for here — and gets it from two attractive, intelligent, stylish stars who haven’t been on the Broadway boards for a good two decades.
Sardi’s, which is also having something of a comeback this season, was the scene of a “celebratory cocktail reception” that followed the performance. (Sardi’s Party No. 4 is set for Exit the King on March 26.) Ordinarily, it’s a quick scoot to Sardi’s through Shubert Alley from 45th Street, but this time first-nighters found it a slow go because of the crowd clamoring for Angela Lansbury outside the Shubert after Blithe Spirit‘s early curtain — and La Lansbury graciously tends her fans (M-G-M training, y’know).
Impressionism began previews as a two-act and soon came down to one, causing a lot of Riedel-needling in the press. “Well, they’re never easy,” sighed the director, Jack O’Brien, when consoled. “The thing is, I made the big mistake to begin with by saying, ‘I think it should be in two acts’ — and, of course, it can’t be. The minute I put an intermission in, I realized, ‘Omigod! All the energy is going forward, and you can’t stop to think because you don’t have all the clues. You have to just keep going. It’s a play where you keep figuring things out as you go along.’ When I realized I confused people, I put it back together. I didn’t cut anything. I took out an intermission.
“I think this is a play for grown-ups. I think this is a play for those of us who have collected a lot of baggage and wonder whether we can ever, ever let it go and find something else, find something new. I think it is a play that is subtly witty and wise. It’s got a lot of wisdom in it. It’s funny and, at the same time, serious about picking yourself up and trying to find somebody else when you’re not a teenager. That’s a hard thing to do. You gotta get rid of the past before you can start all over again. And that’s what it’s about. It’s giving people a lot of courage and a really lovely evening.”
O’Brien can take a bow for cheerleading Allen and Irons back to the stage after all those salad days in cinema. He couldn’t get better spokespeople for the bloody-but-unbowed. “Oh, they’re glorious,” he exclaimed, “and, of course, they are polar opposites: He’s all fire, and she’s all cool. Together, they make such great chemistry.”
Allen recognized the sparks but couldn’t say how they got there. “You never know,” she shrugged helplessly. “I do enjoy playing with Jeremy very much. I love that I’m a Midwest girl and he’s a British guy. But I do think that there is just something culturally specific about us. Sometimes, it’s one of those things that just works.”
She was happy she made the big leap back to Broadway. “It was actually easier than I remembered,” she admitted, “and I am pleased with the way the play came off. Actually, I think it even went beyond that. Sometimes, you have something in your mind, and I even think this went beyond ‘pleased.’ I did it because I loved the play and I loved the director. I like the character, too. She’s someone I deeply recognize — one of the many strong, accomplished women in New York City still on their own.”
Irons, who won a Tony his only previous time on Broadway (in Tom Stoppards The Real Thing in 1984), seemed instantly at home again. “Oh, it’s wonderful to be back,” he declared. “New York audiences are very appreciative. They tell you whether they like you or not, and they seem to be liking this, which is good.”
Andre De Shields, a song-and-dance man (The Full Monty, Ain’t Misbehavin’) who has developed some serious acting chops (Prymate, Cato), here takes on two disparate characters — an African native named for the sweet potatoes he totes, and a Manhattan baker who plays a kind of head-clearing Polonius to his favorite client.
He won the evening’s only exit-applause as the latter. When someone asked him if he heard it off-stage, De Shields demurred, “I’m trying to focus on the characters.”
Although the characters occupy different worlds and cultures, De Shields sees them as one: “From my perspective, they are the same spirit. Chiambuane in Tanzania serves as a spiritual enabler for Thomas, the character played by Jeremy Irons, and then Mr. Linder serves as a spiritual enabler for Katharine, the character played by Joan Allen, in New York. So imagine a time previous to now and a time in the future. His spirit will spiritually enable whoever is in trouble, to liberate their hearts. So I think of it as an ageless specter — that’s the way the character came to me — so I help Thomas in Africa, so I help Katharine in New York, so I help Harry in Sardi’s.”
He was quite dry-eyed about the current, shortened state of Impressionism: “The only thing we lost was an intermission. When you remove 15 minutes, things change. You have to call the designers back in and set up the equipment again because in art, as in life, you change one thing and it affects everything else. When we were intending to open on March 12 — I mean, we were ready to open — what we discovered, with the two acts, is that we were giving the audience an opportunity to second-guess what was going to happen in Act II when indeed we tied it all up in a nice little bow. So, why even give them a chance to have the wrong impression?”
Aaron Lazar, another musical-theatre specialist (blasts at the barricade, a specialty), changes his tune here to no tune to play an altar-bound young romantic.
Why? you may rightly ask. “The play, the cast, and then Jack O’Brien. It was great fun. It was — the most — fun. It’s one of the best ensembles I’ve ever worked with.”
The two other customers of the gallery are in a considerably higher tax bracket and are played by Michael T. Weiss, in his Broadway bow, and by Marsha Mason.
Weiss already likes the sound of “Broadway actor,” he admitted. “I kinda love that. It has been a long time. I started out in theatre here and then got sucked into the Los Angeles film-and-television world. I’m so happy to be doing this now. It’s my favorite thing to do. I just needed a role in New York that I really adored.”
The role in question is a ridiculously rich art collector, and Weiss plays the part in a rather lighthearted vein. “He’s a very wealthy guy, but he has a good time with his money. Why not? Right? If I were worth $100 million, I’d be in a good mood.”
Mason’s character becomes a grandmother during the course of the play, prompting her to up her ante for a painting Allen personally identifies with. “She goes through a nice little arc,” said Mason, who’s a frequent date and actress of O’Brien’s. “This is our sixth project together. We go all the way back to the mid-’70s in San Francisco at A.C.T., and then in L.A. we did Mary Stuart and The Heiress, and then Jack directed The Good Doctor for PBS, and then I did Twelfth Night at the Old Globe in San Diego.”
First-night family gatherings included Lily Rabe and her mother, Jill Clayburgh, and her brother, Michael Rabe — as well as Liz Callaway and her husband, director Dan Foster, and her sister, pianist-composer-chanteuse Ann Hampton Callaway. The latter, of course, was ever-ready to improvise a song about the show. Also: “I’m going to do a benefit for the Jewish Alliance for a New World on my sister’s birthday, April 13 — she won’t be there, but we’ll be going getting drunk afterward — and I’ll be at Carnegie Hall for the centennial Johnny Mercer tribute. I forget the date of that.”
Other friends of the court: Sadie Friedman (Allen’s gorgeous daughter who’s thinking of taking up the family trade), Kenneth Welsh (who lost both Christine Baranski and Glenn Close to Irons in the original Mike Nichols production of The Real Thing) and Bob Balaban (who in December directed Irons and Allen in their first team-effort, a Lifetime film called, and about, “Georgia O’Keefe,” airing this fall).
Also: Karen Ziemba (back from rave reviews in San Diego for playing it straight: Stockard Channing‘s role in Six Degrees of Separation), Blythe Danner (about to follow up “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers” with “Little Fockers”), radio’s Joan Hamberg (whose screenwriter-son, John, created the Fockers), Elaine Stritch, chef Rocco DiSpirito, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (who’s going to reprise Beau Willimon‘s Farragut North on the West Coast with the original Atlantic Theatre Company cast, sans John Gallagher Jr., who’s working on a musical with Green Day), Donna Murphy and Shawn Elliott, lawyer Mark Sendroff, John Lithgow, singer Christine Andreas, comedienne Nancy Opel (taking a night off her hilarious explosions in The Toxic Avenger that pounces on New World Stages April 6), Penny Fuller (still Dividing the Estate at Hartford Stage, between May and early July), Anne Kaufman Schneider and director Joseph Hardy.
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NY1 “Time Out” review of Impressionism by David Cote with video. It’s not a glowing review of the play, but there is great video of scenes from the play itself.
‘Impressionism’ muddled, but Irons and Allen shine
March 26, 2009, 4:22 pm
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) – It doesn’t take an art history major to predict that “Impressionism,” the new play starring Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen that opens on Broadway Tuesday, is going to use that groundbreaking style of painting as a metaphor for life. Michael Jacobs’ play can be said to resemble Impressionist works as well: The closer you examine it, the less moving it becomes.
Still, this gentle comedy/drama about the relationship between a brittle New York art gallery owner and her mild-mannered employee has its charms, which are accentuated by the winning presence of its lead performers, who have been absent from the Broadway stage for far too long.
In its early scenes, it appears as if the evening will be a slog. First we are introduced to Katherine (Allen) and Thomas (Irons), who engage in lengthy debates about subjects like the relative benefits of coffee cakes versus muffins when not showing various masterworks to such potential customers as a wealthy older matron (Marsha Mason) and a Modigliani-craving businessman (Michael T. Weiss).
The action then confusingly and tiresomely shifts between scenes set in the gallery and various flashbacks, including Katherine at age 6 interacting with her soon-to-be-divorced parents (played by Irons and Allen); Katherine at 30 posing nude for a womanizing artist (Irons); and Thomas during a recent trip to Africa where he was shooting photographs of an elderly fisherman (Andre De Shields) for National Geographic.
The play is not helped by its diffuseness — it has been shortened considerably since its early previews — or by its tonal shifts between sitcom-style comedy and sensitive drama. And the lengthy explications about the famous paintings projected on scrims slow the pacing considerably.
But the final scene, when the main characters let down their emotional guard and finally find a way to connect, is quite moving, making one nearly forgive the many missteps along the way.
The two stars — who are aging like fine wine — make middle-aged love seem very sexy indeed. Allen is as luminous onstage today as she was decades ago in “The Heidi Chronicles,” while Irons offers a wily, understated comic turn that should have the matinee ladies quivering.
Director Jack O’Brien has staged this problematic work about as skillfully as one could expect, and the rest of the cast, especially Mason and the scene-stealing De Shields, offer solid comic support.
Allen, Irons make more than a good impression
By BILL CANACCI
You can look at a painting or a photograph you love 1,000 times and still feel touched and inspired. And if you’re lucky, or maybe just open-minded, one of those times you will notice something new.
With “Impressionism,” Michael Jacobs has created a mature, intelligent and witty play about love and art. But it is also about seeing what’s in front of us, about what makes us love something or someone, and about the power of memory.
Set in Manhattan, “Impressionism” is the story of Thomas Buckle (Jeremy Irons), a world-traveling photojournalist, and Katharine Keenan (Joan Allen), a New York gallery owner. As the play begins, we do not exactly know what is going on between them. We do know this: The two are able to have the most entertaining conversations — the dialogue throughout the play is truly first-rate — about coffee cake and cranberry muffins.
But the play then takes us on a journey into the past — to explain why Katharine loves a painting in her gallery. The transition back in time is one of the joys of the play, and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy is to be commended. Her work, combined with scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Natasha Katz, make this play a visual delight. I’m hesitant to give away details because describing it would spoil the effect. But I will say this: It is unexpected and wonderful to smile and be moved during scene changes.
Allen, who won a 1988 best actress Tony Award for “Burn This,” has not been on Broadway in 20 years. Irons took home the 1984 best actor Tony Award for “The Real Thing” — so it’s taken 25 years for him to return to the Great White Way. And yet here they are — making magic together, as if they’ve been on stage together dozens of times.
Irons plays a few roles in the play, but he’s best as Thomas, a man who knows seemingly everything — and loves to tell stories about what he knows. But he is not arrogant or snobbish. Well, maybe a little snobbish, but the audience loves him because they know his heart is good.
Allen is equally impressive. Katharine is an educated woman who prides herself on her ability to read people. It’s fascinating to watch as her character develops — through memories as well experiences in the present at the gallery.
Deserving mention are Marsha Mason, who plays a woman who loves the same work of art as Katharine, and Andre De Shields as Chiambuane, who befriends Thomas while he is working in Tanzania. (My theater companion was a bit uncomfortable during this scene; he thought it bordered on racist. I would not go that far, but I can see how it may make some people a bit uncomfortable.)
Director Jack O’Brien, who won a Tony for his work on the mammoth production “The Coast of Utopia,” captures the pieces, or dots if you will, of the play: the dialogue, the love story, the art, the memories. There is a real flow from start to finish. He makes it seems effortless, when in reality it is a major undertaking.
In some ways, this play will remind people of “Sunday in the Park With George,” Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical. But it stands on its own.
And yet one song from that show, “Putting It Together,” seems particularly appropriate: “Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art/Every moment makes a contribution/Every little detail plays a part/Having just a vision’s no solution,/Everything depends on execution.”
Actors trump material in the theatrical smackdown God of Carnage and the more muted Impressionism.
from New York Magazine http://www.nymag.com
The first two-thirds of Michael Jacobs’s Impressionism are so indistinct and unfocused they make Monet’s water lilies look like photo-realism: Joan Allen plays Katharine, a Manhattan art-gallery owner who can’t part with her high-end merchandise, which symbolizes bits of her past she’s not yet ready to shed. Katharine’s employee, Thomas (Jeremy Irons), a photographer who used to shoot in Africa for National Geographic, is as even-tempered as she is high-strung. He’s also a coffee aficionado, and he shares his wisdom with Katharine; she reciprocates by singing the praises of a cranberry muffin by a local baker (played, marvelously, by André De Shields). They banter and brood cleverly and self-consciously, and in between, dramatized flashbacks show us the lives they led before they were trapped in a sleepy gallery. Customers—including one played by Marsha Mason—alleviate the tedium, but just barely.
And then, in the last half-hour of Impressionism’s single act, Katharine and Thomas’s world opens up like one of those Monet lilies. The play’s director, Jack O’Brien, has shaped it so that we can’t be sure what’s going on until the very end, when we step back from Katharine and Thomas’s daubed-on dots and dashes of conversation and see the broader pattern of their relationship to each other.
The material’s surprise revelation is more a handy way out of the characters’ incessant talkiness than a satisfying, believable conclusion, but at least it gives us something to hang on to. Allen works hard to make Katharine sympathetic; we can see that she’s wounded, not just self-centered and abrasive. But the performance is too finely calibrated: It clacks along efficiently but never breathes. As Thomas, Irons has the luxury of being relaxed and charming, even though his character, too, harbors painful secrets. Irons’s performance is comfortably rumpled and lived-in, an effect that requires meticulousness and discipline. His gift is that he makes hard work look like a shrug. –S.Z.
Impressionism opens on Broadway and proves art isn’t easy
Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons
Like life art is an acquired taste and the same goes for Michael Jacobs Impressionism playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. This particular play is my taste but for the life of me I can’t tell you why. There are times that you go to a museum or an art gallery and a painting that you didn’t think you liked, eats away at you. By the time you are able to turn your eyes away, you have been profoundly moved. There really are no words just vast amounts of feeling. Is the painting for everybody? Probably not, but is anything really for everybody?This is how Impressionism struck me. The play set in an art gallery, tells the tale of Katherine (Joan Allen) and Thomas (Jeremy Irons), lives through flash backs. How they evolved to who they are. What gives them their idiosyncrasies and how they finally find love. For those romantics out there and I am one, this is a chick flick brought to the stage. To look at this production is breathtaking. Monet’s, Chagall’s, Picasso’s, Cassatt’s and other masters are illuminated before our eyes. They shed light like tiny specks so we can see the bigger picture. Joan Allen is radiant as Katherine who fears abandonment and clings to her paintings. Jeremy Irons wraps his way into our hearts and by the end, like Katherine we fall in love with him.Marsha Mason shines in the small role of Julia trying so desperately to connect with her daughter. Andre De Sheilds embodies both of his characters with a great monologue about life and what love really is. Jack O’Brian’s staging is what I did have problems with. The flashbacks are hard to follow and as beautiful as the art is, it becomes distracting and at times too much. Impressionism proves “Art isn’t easy”, but it can and does touch our souls.