Van Gogh in love is subject of new play

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  March 24, 2003 at 10:51 PM
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NEW YORK, March 25 (UPI) -- It's Vincent Van Gogh's year in the theater, first as the subject of an Off-Broadway musical titled "Vincent" that recounted his anguished life story and now as the protagonist of a Broadway play, "Vincent in Brixton," the portrait of a young artist in love -- with an older woman.

The biodrama, a Lincoln Center Theater production at the Golden Theater, won the coveted Olivier Award in February for best London play of 2003 and looks like a shoo-in for a Broadway Tony Award nomination. One of its stars, veteran English actress Clare Higgins, also won an Olivier for her performance in the Royal National Theater production in London and is giving one of the finest performances of the Broadway season.

Playwright Nicholas Wright has set his drama in the working-class London district of Brixton, where Vincent -- an unstable, tactless 20-year-old Dutchman achingly played by Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf -- found lodgings in 1873. The artist-to-be was transferred to London as a $150-a-year salesman for international art dealer, Goupil & Co., a firm he had worked for in The Hague and for whom his brother, Theo, worked in Paris.

Vincent's landlady was Ursula Loyer, a lonely, deeply depressed widow who ran a school for small boys. She had a daughter his age, Eugenie, living at home and just beginning an illicit affair with another lodger, painter Sam Plowman, that her free-thinking mother abetted to a shocking degree. Vincent fell for Eugenie at first, then found himself in love with her mother.

When Ursula at first objects because of their age difference, Vincent quotes French writer Jules Michelet to her: "No woman is old so long as she loves and is loved."

His feelings are finally fully reciprocated by Ursula, according to the play, which is based on romantic supposition drawn from Vincent's letters to Theo and letters exchanged between Vincent's strict religious parents and their children. We do know a visit to Vincent at the Loyers by his straight-laced sister, Anna, ended his sojourn in London abruptly, possibly because Anna disapproved of his relationship with Ursula.

"Since the summer, he (Vincent) has been abnormal," his mother wrote in a letter that is the strongest clue to what really happened at 87 Hackford Rd, Brixton. "The secrets of the Loyers did him no good."

Vincent was hastily transferred to Goupil's Paris branch in 1875 at the instigation of his father, and Wright rounds out this scenario with a return visit by Vincent to the Loyers in 1876 after he had left Goupil to work as an unpaid schoolteacher in England, a prelude to his study for the Dutch Reformed ministry in the footsteps of his pastor father. It wasn't until 1880 that he declared his intention to become a painter.

He had always enjoyed sketching, however, and he sketches throughout the play. It is a nude drawing of Ursula that his sister comes across in his portfolio that confirms her suspicions that Vincent is in a carnal relationship with a fortysomething woman. This revelation is the dramatic climax of a beautifully constructed and unapologetically sentimental drama effectively directed by Richard Eyre.

Wright is best known in America for "Mrs. Klein," which had a run in New York in 1995, and in Britain for "The Custom of the Country" and "The Desert Air," both written for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He is particularly fortunate to have two remarkable actors -- Higgins and Ten Haaf, who also played Vincent in London -- heading "Vincent in Brixton's" impeccable cast, including Sarah Drew, making her Broadway debut as Eugenie, Pete Starrett as Plowman, and Liesel Matthews, another debutante, as Anna.

Higgins is one of those actresses who makes every facial expression and eyeblink count, and her every bodily movement and pose is a statement. It is wonderful to watch her flower emotionally as Vincent begins to woo her in an awkward but enthusiastic manner and as she decides to become his muse, encouraging his artistic aspirations as no one else before in his life has done with any sincerity.

Newcomer Ten Haaf is utterly delectable as a tousle-headed blonde of almost impish, unpredictable and even scary nature. In his loneliness, he bonds quickly with fellow artist Plowman just as he did with his male soulmate, Paul Gauguin, later in life. Paul Woodson was excellent as Vincent in the Off-Broadway musical about Van Gogh, but Ten Haaf satisfies everyone's imaginary portrait of what this universally beloved artist must have been like.

Set and costume designer Tim Hatley has provided a working Victorian kitchen which sends into the audience appetizing cooking odors, such as roasting lamb, as no other show has in this critic's memory. The period costumes, especially Ursula's widow's weeds and Vincent's ill-fitting suits, are right on the mark. Original music by Dominic Muldowney further enriches this richly dimensional production.

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