Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons
in Impressionism
(© Joan Marcus)
Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons
in Impressionism
(© Joan Marcus)
Tony Award winners Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen have repeatedly been quoted as saying that once they read Michael Jacobs' new play Impressionism, now at the Schoenfeld Theatre, they had to say "yes" about returning to Broadway after more than two decades. But having seen the show, one can only express horror at the thought of what the plays must have been like that Irons and Allen rejected over the years for their Great White Way comebacks. For Impressionism -- at least in its raw form -- hasn't a single redeeming brush stroke.

Setting aside the relatively minor concern that no art gallery would be run as Katharine Keenan (Allen) runs the gallery in which the action takes place -- she has such a sentimental attachment to the four (and only) art works on her walls that she doesn't care to sell them -- and also ignoring the equally minor concern that Jacobs has a tenuous grasp on the Impressionist movement, the bigger issue here is Jacobs' relentlessly juvenile understanding of how ostensibly intelligent urban adults behave.

The unrealistically naïve but well-dressed Katharine has employed disillusioned photojournalist Thomas Buckle (Irons) to help her run the gallery, for reasons that are not entirely clear. As the occasional visitor comes and goes, Katharine wallows in the flashback memories that two of the paintings stir in her; and eventually, Thomas wallows in the memories aroused in him by a framed photograph he took in Tanzania of a young boy posed against a red-orange sunset. These interludes are supposed to plumb the relation of life to art and explain why the pair are dubious about romantic commitments, but the sequences are too sketchily mundane to accomplish any such psychologically astute purposes.

The artwork is also meant to represent the opposing attitudes toward existence that Katharine and Thomas represent. Or, as Jacobs has her ask in a query that smacks of Philosophy 101, "Do you think life is intended to be realism or impressionism?" The answer to that 64-cent question is provided by the end of the narrative when Jacobs' intention that the play is a love story about two arrested-development case histories becomes explicit -- and the reason for the unflaggingly arch dialogue Katharine and Thomas have been spouting for 95 intermissionless minutes is revealed.

Under Jack O'Brien's direction, Irons and Allen may be doing their best, but their best isn't nearly good enough. Sure, they spar with commitment, but that gets them nowhere when everything they have to say is inauthentic. Of the supporting cast, Marsha Mason gets one genuine laugh as a monied art lover, and Andre De Shields does well as both a Tanzanian griot and a Manhattan baker who helps set Katharine and Thomas to rights with his unpretentious art insights.

What can be said in the project's favor is the soigne look that set designer Scott Pask has provided, particularly a show-curtain and several frequently raised and lowered frames on which are projected familiar Impressionist (and several non-Impressionist) works. But for all their beauty, Impressionism doesn't even begin to paint a realistic picture of life.