According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath

Despite fascinating subject matter nearly bubbling with promise, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath leaves its audience like the Madame herself: tepid and wondering where it all went wrong.

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Reviewed by Cait Weiss

“Hearing worse does not necessarily make yours not suck.”
-- The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath

The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath (presented by playwright and director Israel Horovitz’s New York Playwrights Group) is filled with beautiful phrases. The above quotation is not one of them. However, the quote pops to mind when musing on this production as a whole. The show is not the worst thing out there, by any means, but that alone isn’t saying much.

It’s not that the play’s subject matter isn’t interesting – on the contrary, Horovitz’s story of the artist Pierre Bonnard’s love life is, as an outline on a page, riveting. Rendered on the Kirk Theater’s stage, though, the tale of love affairs, artistic revision, suicide, obsessive guilt and one very close call with bigamy is reduced to hollow clichés, flat dialogue and shallow stage gimmicks.

There are many problems with this production – the actions jumps from past to present in such a harried manner that we’ve never given the time to care about the characters before we see them torture one another. Instead of being invested in the action onstage, then, we are repelled by it… assuming we’re even engaged enough to be repelled. It’s as if Horovitz aims to alienate his audience from the get-go, but unlike any Brechtian example of the A-Effect, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath, with its constant talk of falling stars and the power of love, depends upon milking our sympathies, not separating us from them.

The play revolves around two main stories. The first centers on Pierre Bonnard, his paintings, his (eventual) wife, and his lovers. The second centers on two young art students, Luc and Orlie, in modern day Paris. While Bonnard calms the Madame and caresses the model, Luc confesses love to Orlie during a study break for an exam in, you guessed it, a Bonnard-based art class. The parallels ensue as the plots unravel.

Obviously, this is quite an ambitious play – there are time jumps, huge location shifts, multiple narratives, deep and upsetting themes, and a hodgepodge of accents and languages up on the stage. Still, the most ambitious part of this production isn’t any of that – it’s the choice to have it all done by only three actors: Michael Bakkensen, Stephanie Janssen and John Shea. Horovitz introduces us to at least a dozen characters, yet we only get a cast a quarter of that size. Unfortunately, not all cast members are up to the challenge and what might have been an impressive attempt to tell a multi-layered, multi-media story devolves into watching a couple of actors indicate their way across the stage with far too much gesturing and too little believability. Only Shea emerges as a consistently strong presence onstage – then again, he is the sole actor blessed with only one role to play.

Still despite all this, there remain bright spots on the dull canvas – for example, Bonnard’s art is stunning, and the use of projection screen onstage gives the play acted out below a greater context, a greater depth than ever would have been possible otherwise. The props as well are innovative and surprising – when Bakkensen transforms into an artist, he sticks his head into a framed self-portrait of his character, ready to jump out of the oils and into a conversation with Bonnard. These small, smart choices bring a welcome wit to the play and distract us from other, more serious flaws.

On the whole, this play is not yet a masterpiece – still, The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath does have moments of success. Buried in the misfortunes of this production are a couple of beautiful phrases, a few touchingly honest moments and some very disquieting themes. I know long after I forget the obnoxious gimmick of Bakkensen barking like a dog for laughs, I will remember the troubling image of Bonnard painting and repainting his wife’s ailing body in the bath as he struggles to pose her body in the same way he found his mistress’s corpse.

The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath, one hopes, could end up much like Bonnard's Young Women in the Garden – it took the artist twenty years to get it right, but when he did, there really was nothing else like it. However, as it stands, this play has got a ways to go.

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Theater Row’s Kirk Theater (410 W. 42ND Street)
Tickets (, 212.279.4200): $18.00
Performances: February 8th through February 24th, Wednesdays and Saturdays and 8pm, and Saturdays at 2pm.

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