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A CurtainUp Review
Van Gogh biographies include Steven Naifeh and Gregory White's comprehensive Van Gogh: The Life, and the excellent if liberty-taking biographical films Lust for Life and Vincent and Theo. Add to this Leonard Nimoy's thirty-five year-old one-man show Vincent , now at Theatre at St. Clement's
The multi-talented Nimoy died last year after a long and successful career, primarily as Mr. Spock on the long-running TV series Star Trek. He was fascinated by van Gogh to the point of starring in and directing the 1981 telefilm Vincent that he adapted from the 1979 play Van Gogh by Philip Stephens. In it he played Theo (Nimoy also performed the role of Theo on stage.)
James Briggs now plays the central character at St. Clements as he has during the past three years. In the rather stolid but empathetic production, Theo addresses the audience as if they were acquaintances and associates whom he has gathered together one week after his brother Vincent's burial. The play, or more accurately Theo's animated lecture, is an extended tribute or homage to his brother and his legacy.
The time is 1890. Theo, who spent a large part of his life caring and supporting Vincent through his many torments and trials, attempts by reading sections from a massive collection of letters mostly written by Vincent, how his brother felt and acted in the face of scorn, ridicule and presumed failure. Though this gathering is based on fact, under the direction of Dr. Brant Pope, it falls far short as drama.
Given to what was considered at the time as epileptic seizures (questioned today as not being entirely accurate by the medical profession), Vincent was dependent upon and cared for by Theo. But the disquieting but somehow also disengaging narrative only fitfully bring us up close and personal to the tormented artist who became immortal.
It would take an actor with more demonstrable resources than the otherwise affable Briggs can muster to bring to life. Although these epistles make us aware of the depth of the brothers' shared struggle with mental illness and feelings of exclusion, they don't translate into compelling theater.
Although Briggs soon enough discards the jacket of his brown three-piece suit to speak to us in his shirt-sleeves, it isn't enough to provide anything demonstrative. Some dabbling with some paint brushes are the most interesting of Theo's activities on the modest set that's designed by Briggs. In fairness, the text does consider Vincent's romantically rebellious nature by making a home for a pregnant streetwalker and her child, his failed attempt to be a preacher and his frustrations with being a painter.
Unfortunately, humor is a notably missing element. Toward the end of Theo's lecture, the audience is treated to a nicely projected overview of van Gogh's lesser as well as well-known paintings, a much more dramatic and arresting presentation than anything that has preceded.