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Vincent in Brixton

By New York City
Clare Higgins and Jochum ten Haafin Vincent in Brixton
(Photo: © Ivan Kyncl)
Clare Higgins and Jochum ten Haaf
in Vincent in Brixton
(Photo: © Ivan Kyncl)
Nicholas Wright is pushing a specific theory in Vincent in Brixton, a comedy-drama that arrives here trailing a vaunted reputation and with a cast headed by Broadway debutante Clare Higgins, who's already stacked up awards at home for her performance. Wright contends that from 1873 to 1875, when Vincent van Gogh lived in South London's Brixton enclave, he nurtured the seeds of his artistic brilliance much as he may have nurtured plants growing in the garden of the boarding house where he lodged.

Speculating on something as elusive as the particular incidents that spark creation in a latent talent is like trying to snare the breeze in a butterfly net; but that hasn't deterred Wright from figuratively racing, net in hand, across open dramaturgical fields. He imagines that the eager, 20-year-old Vincent (Jochum ten Haaf, also bowing stateside), toiling at international art dealer Goupil and Company, takes a room in the home of a certain Ursula Loyer (Higgins), a widow who also runs a boys' school. Initially attracted to Mrs. Loyer's daughter, Eugenie (Sarah Drew), and dismayed that she's attached herself to fellow boarder/would-be artist Sam Plowman (Pete Starrett), Vincent comes to realize it's Mrs. Loyer for whom he's developing his first passion.

Innocent as a vase of sunflowers, Vincent is nevertheless able to stop the woman's mourning of her late husband and submit to a young man's blandishments. Only when he goes to Holland for a brief family visit and returns with his termagant sister, Anna (Liesel Matthews), does he abruptly decide to abandon Mrs. Loyer. He sees her again a few years later when he's been dumped from employment at Goupil's Paris office and is contemplating a career as an itinerant preacher. (This is Wright's one try at suggesting the man's eventual madness.)

Wright, who's worked regularly with director Richard Eyre at England's Royal National Theatre (they also collaborated on the 20th-century theater overview Changing Stages), does have something concrete to go on here. Yes, van Gogh (rhymes with "fun loch," as the beamish boy explains here) did plunk himself down south of the Thames while working for the firm that also employed, in Paris, his brother Theo. It's on record that he stayed under the roof of a certain Mrs. Loyer and that, while there, he enjoyed getting to know London and Londoners. Beyond this, however, Wright is striking out on his own and, perhaps, is playing fast and loose with the facts. For instance: A look at the chronology published in Letters to His Brother Theo reveals that, although Vincent indeed stayed with the Loyers, it's the daughter who was called Ursula and her rejection of him seemed the cause of his quitting the 87 Hackford Road premises. This may be a small discrepancy but it suggests the extent to which Wright has been free with actual events, whatever they were.

Since the playwright doesn't seem to imply that his script is a docu-drama, he's probably within his rights in positing whatever he wants to posit. On that basis, he is and isn't successful. He comes up trumps with the May-December romance angle -- or, rather, May-September, with the man as the former and the woman as the latter. The Vincent van Gogh that Wright has written could be any youth who gradually realizes that he's drawn to a mature woman and who has the bright idea, as Vincent does here, to consult his Jules Michelet and quote aloud the following statement: "No woman is old, as long as she loves and is loved." (This kind of savvy, and Mrs. Loyer's warming to it, will probably lead to the play's having particular appeal for matinee ladies.)

Jochum ten Haaf and Clare Higgins in Vincent in Brixton(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Jochum ten Haaf and Clare Higgins in Vincent in Brixton
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Bustling around her kitchen, from the solid-iron stove past the wainscoting and other appointments and over to the sink (Tim Hatley is the set and costume designer), Mrs. Loyer occupies herself with the ordinary things in life. Wearing a voluminous black dress and apron, she's the woman down the street whom everyone sees on her daily trip to the shops -- the woman who gives herself over to her longings only when they catch her unaware. As Wright depicts her and as Higgins plays her, she's as ripe for the plucking as a Bosc pear, and just as bruised. As Wright depicts Vincent and as he's played by ten Haaf, the lad is earnest and intelligent. Underlining many of his most cogent arguments to Mrs. Loyer with crisp gestures, it's as if he's slicing reality into palpable practicalities with the side of his hand. As the other members of the household mill about, Wright skillfully etches the unexpected yet inevitable Vincent-Loyer connection, and director Eyre oversees it carefully.

While Wright does a nice job of showing how Vincent awakens (or re-awakens) Mrs. Loyer to her allure and how she reciprocates by introducing him to his sexual prowess, his depiction of Vincent taking steps towards becoming a great artist is less sure. To Wright's credit, he stops well short of conjuring the kind of madness that eventually led to van Gogh's slicing off part of his ear. On the other hand, he slips in little references to what are recognized as typical van Gogh subjects. During the action, for instance, Vincent asks Mrs. Loyer how he can help with the evening meal, and she says: "You can see to the potatoes." Is this a reference to "The Potato Eaters," one of the first noted van Gogh drawings?

The beauty of the mundane, which is not a bad description of van Gogh's earliest studies, is also implied in the dark kitchen where all of the plays comings-and-goings take place. Lighting designer Peter Mumford very likely looked through van Gogh's works for ideas about where to place light sources, et cetera. All of this quotidian detail culminates in two battered boots dropped on Mrs. Loyer's kitchen table for Vincent's notice. (Point of interest: The 1885 still life "A Pair of Shoes" is supposedly van Gogh's rendering of footwear he purchased in Paris and not related to any known Brixton clodhoppers.) Throughout, there is an implied invitation for the observer to await and pounce on possible "Aha!" moments; this unfortunately lends a comic air to the undertaking that the playwright never diffuses.

When Vincent calls on Mrs. Loyer towards the end of Wright's fantasy, she says to him: "What I wanted was someday, somehow to be the cause of something remarkable." This plaintive confession, made by a sympathetic figure (and by an impeccable actress), is meant to prompt the audience to feel that Mrs. L. has achieved her goal: Sitting opposite her is a fellow eventually to be recognized as one of the greatest artists of the century. Of course, this is merely a playwright's contrivance and, ultimately, claptrap.


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