Justin Grace and Austin Pendleton
in Another Vermeer
(© Kim T. Sharp)
Justin Grace and Austin Pendleton
in Another Vermeer
(© Kim T. Sharp)
In order not to be hanged for treason, a painter must prove that he forged a masterpiece sold to Nazi officer Hermann Goering by painting another masterpiece in the same style. The premise of Bruce J. Robinson's intriguing but awkward one-act drama Another Vermeer, now at the Abingdon Theatre under Kelly Morgan's direction, may sound somewhat dubious, but it's based on the strange but true story of Dutch painter Han Van Meegeren, who was called both traitor and hero for his actions.

The imprisoned Han (Austin Pendleton) is provided with all the materials that he needs to prove that he is capable of forging the work of 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer -- which includes the cooperation of handsome guard Bram (Justin Grace), who is to serve as the life model for Han's new painting. The conversations between the two of them reveal the necessary back story about Han's life and his peculiar predicament, while also calling into question how a work of art can be evaluated, and the price tag that is put upon it.

Han's forgeries were financially lucrative and highly praised, but the works he produced under his own name were critically panned. Han is particularly incensed by how leading art critic Abraham Bredius (Thom Christopher) dismissed his paintings. He claims that this was the primary reason he embarked upon his forgery career, painting new works in the style of old masters and passing them off as newly discovered originals. His pride and joy is his "Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus" which Bredius unknowingly praised as one of Vermeer's finest paintings.

Robinson lays out some interesting foundations for his drama, but then goes off track by including voiceovers, flashbacks, and ghostly visitations that at best come across as unnecessary, and at worst unbelievably cheesy. The scenes between Han and the ghosts of Vermeer and that of his former art teacher (both played by Dan Cordle) are particularly egregious.

Pendleton portrays Han as wildly eccentric. He walks around in bare feet, mumbles, casually doles out insults, and numbs his senses with alcohol or drugs. He is hardly a sympathetic figure, but Pendleton nevertheless makes him compelling to watch, and maybe even root for. Grace outwardly indicates his character's shifting attitudes towards Han, but the part is rather flimsily written.

The role of Bredius is so caricatured that his initial appearance -- admittedly in one of Han's hallucinations -- is accompanied by melodramatic piano chords. (The sound design is by Kevin Lloyd.) Christopher's portrayal of him continues to be in the stock villain mold, even when Bredius actually comes to visit Han in prison. Christian Pedersen's Lt. Thomas Keller is similarly written and played as one-dimensional.

It's this lack of complexity that ultimately makes Another Vermeer a frustrating viewing experience. The play relies too heavily on sentiment and not enough on a rigorous probing of the provocative issues that it introduces, reducing the rich inherent drama within the story to simplistic observations.