by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
"Vincent In Brixton" -- Van Gogh In Love?
by Nicholas Wright
directed by Richard Eyre
John Golden Theater
252 West 45 St
212- 239-6300
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden April 11, 20003

"Vincent In Brixton" is based on the early life of the painter Vincent Van Gogh who, according to his letters to his brother Theo, when very young, settled down in a rooming house in the little town of Brixton England. There according to the imagination of the author Nicholas Wright, he was beguiled by the landlady of the house, a woman considerably older than he, with whom he presumably had an affair. So much for the essential story, although there are sub plots too: the landlady's daughter is in love with another roomer and the landlady herself has her own story, mourning for her dead husband.

On the face of it, this play would seem intriguing. It had opened in London to rave reviews. The leading players, the British actress Claire Higgins (the landlady ) and Jochum Ten Haff, from the Netherlands, (Van Gogh), received plenty of London praise--Olivier Awards, Evening Standard Awards and all the rest. Ms. Higgins, in particular, was eagerly awaited here and was given unusual publicity to whet the appetite of theater goers.

But strangely enough, the play, at least for me, did not take off. Neither did the performances, although the director Richard Eyre did his best to discreetly show the sexuality developing between the young man and the mature landlady. But what went wrong was the play itself. It was exceedingly talky and, sometimes because of the actors' accents and the poor acoustics, much of the dialogue was inaudible. Besides, the production, on the whole, lacked theatrical energy, so that all the talk--and there was lots of it--became tedious. Claire Higgins was directed to busy herself in the kitchen (where the play takes place) so thoroughly as to become monotonous if not disconcerting. Moving from place to place cooking, cleaning, washing, frying and so forth--true, she is getting a meal prepared--her frenetic activity, an excess of reality, finally took center stage and diminished the presence of the actress and the dynamics of her character. Another negative factor is that the play lacked a strong dramatic thrust. O. K., two lonely creatures are thrown together, a boy, and a woman who could be his mother, and so they find sex. During the course of their attraction, they talk a lot about themselves, a little about art, (Van Gogh had not as yet found his true metier), and indulge in some philosophical and psychological meandering. She is repressed and sullen; he is endearing and boyish--all conventionally melodramatic and a typical set up for a seduction.

In the end, I found no real insight into the painter's life and I wondered why if one wanted to write about Van Gogh, one would chose this incident--that is, if it ever occurred at all.

Which leads me to another thought. Everything that wins praise in London, and seen by some New York critic, and then hyped here does not necessarily work on Broadway. That has happened repeatedly. Some critics this year (and in the past) have made a point of pushing who he or she thinks is London's best actor. Suddenly the actor is given the title of "best" and hailed as a genius. That the public fails to bow low to the critic's choice, tells us something about our own theatergoers.

I am all for imports from London. I have always admired the theater there, but this hardly means that everything raved about over there will automatically be successful over here. I am afraid that "Vincent In Brixton regrettably is a good example. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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