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A CurtainUp Review

Last week when we buried my brother there was so much I wanted to say, I couldn't do it. You see, I simply couldn't speak. I didn't express myself, it's been a burden on my soul. What I wanted to say and I couldn't...what I needed to say, what you need to hear. So I thank you for this second opportunity. — Theo
Vincent James Briggs
(photo: Russ Rowland)
An unquenchable lust for life and for his art were unquestionably major factors in the life of Vincent van Gogh, one of the masters of post-Impressionism. The mental and emotional instability and indeed a progressive physical impairment that ultimately led to him cutting off a part of his ear most certainly played a part in the many paintings and sketches that define this troubled 19th century artist. He sold only one painting in his lifetime, a lifetime in which he was, nevertheless, intoxicated by his quest for spirituality, his desire for love, and finding a way to paint through his emotions.

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.

Vincent By Leonard Nimoy
Directed by Dr. Brant Pope

Cast: James Briggs (Theo)
Lighting Design: Scott Pinkney
Scenic Design: James Briggs
Costume Design: Barbara Pope
Sound Design: James Briggs
Production Manager: Christopher Shane Donovan
Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes no intermission
Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street
Tickets: $59.00
Performances: Wednesday and Thursday at 7 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; matinees Saturday at 2 pm and Sunday at 3 pm.
From 04/01/16 Opened 04/07/16 Ends 06/05/16
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 06/06/16
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