John Shea, Stephanie Janssen, and Michael Bakkensen
in The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath
(© Lilly Charles)
John Shea, Stephanie Janssen, and Michael Bakkensen
in The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath
(© Lilly Charles)
A man walks into a museum and begins to paint over a valuable art work. Turns out he's the French symbolist painter Pierre Bonnard, who has a "fresh idea" for his own painting and wishes to revise it. This is the starting point for Israel Horowitz's uneven new play, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath, which is the inaugural production of the New York Playwrights Lab. While the show wrestles with some intriguing concepts including intellectual property, the consequences of sexual freedom, and artistic inspiration, it only rarely stirs the emotions.

Cutting forwards and backwards in time, the work not only shows excerpts from various points in the life of Bonnard (John Shea), but also modern-day scenes in which a couple of art students, Aurelie (Stephanie Janssen) and Luc (Michael Bakkensen), play out their own drama.

Those already familiar with Bonnard's life and/or the artistic scene in early 20th-century France will be best suited to follow the action. Further, since Janssen and Bakkensen also portray every other character within the play, it often becomes confusing as to whom they are playing at which moment. Direct narration to the audience identifying the various people and places only slightly alleviates this situation.

Horovitz has followed the basic details of Bonnard's life, although the playwright has surely fabricated a few things as well. The central conflict that emerges is Bonnard's love for his model and mistress Renée Monchaty (or "Chaty,") versus his devotion to former mistress and eventual wife, Marthe. The outcome of this love triangle also proves to be the key to Bonnard's revision to his painting, as well as to the secret that the play's title references.

Shea is consistently engaging, displaying Bonnard's cad-like behavior, as well as his melancholy, and ultimately tragic air. "Responsibility is taking my life toward unthinkable catastrophe," says Bonnard in the play. "Why does love die before we die? Why do we outlive our hearts? We are artists. We know suffering all too well. It is something we must never knowingly cause." In passages such as this, we are given insight not only to the artistic impulse, but also the very human flaws of a man who doesn't always make the best choices for either himself or others.

Bakkensen amuses in a variety of roles, from Bonnard's contemporary Toulouse-Lautrec to the painter's art dealer, Vollard. He's best as art student Luc, whose love for Aurelie is complicated by the fact that they are both already romantically involved with other people. Janssen is also at her best in the modern-day scenes. Unfortunately, she's not as convincing as the many women in Bonnard's life. In particular, her portrayal of the aged Marthe plays so falsely that it takes you out of the play.

The same can be said about the playwright's continuous use of extraneous narration that adds little to the overall story. Particularly egregious is his constant references to the stars and the universe, which comes across as rather hokey. Horowitz, who also directs, hasn't quite smoothed out the transitions between scenes, making the pace seem rather choppy.

Christopher J. Bailey's lighting helps mitigate this somewhat, while the jarring switches in Julie Pittman's music selections -- which range from classical music to hard-driving rock -- mirror the huge leaps in time and space taken by the play as a whole. Mimi Maxmen's costumes, often taken directly off of various onstage mannequins, evoke the different time periods portrayed in the script. The most crucial design element, though, is Jenna McFarland Lord's set, which includes two large screens overhanging the stage that allow us to see various images, including the Bonnard paintings around which the entire play revolves.