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A CurtainUp Review
The Secret of Mme Bonnard's Bath

This painting may well be hanging on this museum's wall, but the painting is not owned by the museum. The wall is owned by the museum, the painting is owned by me. I live it. I own it.— Bonnard in response to the museum guard who is trying to stop him from revising one of his paintings. He also tells the guard "I paint because I can capture a moment from my time, and carry it to another time."
Being a theater critic I don't have as much time as I'd like to visit New York's expansive art scene, and revisit paintings by some of my favorite painters. How nice then to see some of Pierre Bonnard's canvases projected on two large screen as part of playwright Israel Horovitz's intriguing exploration into why Bonnard painted some 300 pictures showing his wife in or near her bathtub. Like The Frugal Repast (see link below), another new mystery about a famous artist's work, a Picasso etching, The Secret of Mme Bonnard's Bath not only tells an intriguing story but speculates on the the issue of artistic property rights.

While not without humor, this is a rather somber and melodramatic reflection on the personal and creative impulses that affect an artist's work and life. The "secret" of the title revolves around one painting in particular which has a dark figure at the bottom staring at Mme Bonnard reclining in her bath.

The drama took root in the playwright's mind from an overheard Bonnard anecdote. It seems a sleeping Paris museum guard woke up to find an old man, who turned out to be Bonnard, painting over one of his paintings. Bonnard, as portrayed here, felt that he should be free to alter it even though it had been acquired for display by a museum.

Horovitz has not only turned all this into a play about Bonnard but used the guard as part of a sub-plot about two art students who are studying Bonnard and start pondering the disrepancy between their study notes and the additional figure in one painting they look at. The attraction between the students, both of whom are committed to others, nicely paralells Bonnard's own extensive love life which turns out to explain the mysterious second woman watching Mme Bonnard.

The play, which premiered at Horovitz' Gloucester, Massachussets theater and is now having its New York premiere on Theater Row, is structured to take us back and forth in time (a device somewhat overdone and at the expense of smooth flow). Though a single actor portrays the womanizing Bonnard, that actor must portray him as a young, middle aged and old man. Experienced playwright, director and theatrical entrepreneur that he is, Horovitz also wrote his script so that the various other characters could be played without confusion by just two actors; a woman to play Bonnard's mistresses, wife, the female art student as well as the play's narrator, and a man to play the museum guard. the other art student and Bonnard's various colleagues —on Vollard the art dealer and another the critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire also appeared in Ron Hirsen's The Frugal Repast , also figures here even though he never appears on stage.

John Shea, an actor too rarely seen on New York stages, deftly handles Bonnard's youthful and older personas. Stephanie Janssen and Michael Bakkensen are fine in their multiple roles, whether as part of the main story or their own double exploration of Bonnard and their romantic feelings for each other. Bakkensen gets one of the play's funniest visual scenes by playing Bonnard's fellow artist, the deformed Toulouse-Lautrec, on his knees, with shoes positioned as if coming out of the knees.

Given the small theater and this production's obviously tight budget, the staging is quite impressive. Two large screens are used to project a panorama of Bonnard's beautiful paintings, a footed bathtub echoes the tub in so many of the paintings and Mimi Maxem's costumes hanging upstage on mannequins add a touch of color and work as a screen for the double-cast actors to move on and off the stage. Christopher J. Bailey's lighting bathes everything in a somewhat dark but painterly glow.

Like so many author-directed plays, this one would benefit immeasurably from a firmly applied blue pencil. At almost two hours, a certain degree of tedium sets in and give the play an unedited, unfinished feel. The several narrated scenes about starlight and its path and timespan for reaching the earth, distract more than they add and, if not deleted altogether, could certainly do with some cuts.

The above negatives notwithstanding, The Secret of Mme Bonnard's Bath is worth seeing, if only to see those lovely Bonnard paintings.

Written & Directed by Israel Horovitz
Cast: John Shea (Pierre Bonnard at various ages), Michael Bakkensen (Luc, Natanson, Vollard, Boursin, M. Monchty, Toulouse-Lautrec), Stephanie Janssen (Mme Bonnard, Narrator, Aurelie, Chaty, Lucienne)
Sets: Jenna McFarland Lord
Costumes: Mimi Maxem
Lights: Christopher J. Bailey
Sound: Julie Pittman
Properties: Mia Nehme
Running Time: 2 hours, including intermission
New York Playwrights Lab,Kirk Theatre,410 West 42 Street 212 -279-4200
From 2/03/07 to 2/24/07; opening 2/08/07
Wednesday — Saturday at 8PM; Saturday at 2PM,
Tickets: $18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 4th press performance
broadway musicals: the 101 greatest shows of all time
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.

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