Uniquely structured and playfully presented, Israel Horovitz's lovely The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath wisely eschews the sensationalism of its potentially melodramatic main story in favor of gently meditating on life, love and art.
John Shea and Stephanie Janssen in The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath.
Reviewed by Patrick Lee
It takes a while for The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath to come into focus - it sketches in two alternating stories a couple of generations apart which deceptively seem at first to have only a banal, unpromising connection - but once playwright Israel Horovitz starts to shade and color in his themes, the play reveals itself as a rich and engaging meditation on the limitations (and paradoxically the immortality) of art, among many other things. It's a lovely and intelligent play which manages to sometimes be sentimental without being melodramatic, and to be high-minded without being pretentious.
One of the first events of the play finds painter Pierre Bonnard approaching one of his paintings on display in a Paris museum and altering it significantly with fresh paint. Horovitz's play means to (and does) depict the events that inspired Bonnard to take this action, but his aim is more ambitious and interesting than mere melodrama. As Bonnard's story unfolds and we watch his growing attraction for the woman in the painting, Horovitz also tells the modern-day story of two art students who are studying Bonnard's works while fighting their growing attraction to each other. The stories gently sound echoes into each other and keep the themes and ideas of the play, rather than its events, at the fore.
Additionally The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath has a pleasingly playful quality which shrewdly takes care to remind us that we are watching a play: the actors periodically break character to narrate, for one thing. For another, the primary focal points of the set are twin hovering screens which mostly display Bonnard paintings, and a line of dress forms upstage outfitted in the play's costumes. While John Shea (convincingly and vividly) plays only Bonnard, the other two cast members (Stephanie Janssen and Michael Bakkensen, both very good except for a wavering or unconvincing accent here and there) handle all the other numerous roles, making quick changes on stage behind the dress forms. Thankfully these theatrical devices distance us just enough to let the play do its job, and yet also mitigate the cold truths the play sometimes reveals with a warm, engaging playfulness.
The playwright, who also directed this production, skillfully shifts between a variety of moods: it's remarkable that we sail so smoothly from moments of whimsy (such as the one where an artist friend in Bonnard's circle wears a picture frame around his neck, as if he's literally popping his head out of his own portrait) to dark moments of private anguish (such as the grim monologue of Bonnard's most-used model). Yet it is all of a piece.
While I could carp with some of those accents, and say that I would have liked a bit more specificity in the contemporary story, I can't say that I found The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath anything less than a distinct and rewarding pleasure.
Theater Row’s Kirk Theater (410 W. 42ND Street)
Tickets (www.ticketcentral.com, 212.279.4200): $18.00
Performances: February 8th through February 24th, Wednesdays and Saturdays and 8pm, and Saturdays at 2pm.
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.