“The Credeaux Canvas,” Keith Bunin’s play about an attempt at art forgery, has serious credibility problems of its own. The brush strokes are always showing in this strained contemporary drama about a trio of aspiring young New Yorkers with wandering affections and loose morals.
The evening’s most authentic note is struck by Derek McLane’s set, a meticulously observed facsimile of an East Village apartment inhabited by young art student Winston (Lee Pace) and disgruntled real estate salesman Jamie (Glenn Howerton).
The smudges of grime on the white walls, the half-hearted attempts at ironic decoration, the cupboards full of ramen and cereal, the rumpled futon and mismatched bedding that allows a corner of the living room to double as Winston’s bedroom — everything bespeaks the impecuniousness and carelessness of creative youth.
Winston is the resident slacker; his sentences are unfailingly split in two by the phrase “you know” and larded with odd pauses. These affectations are milked to tedious effect by Pace, who gives a self-consciously eccentric performance that adds to the general artificiality of the play.
The feckless fellow seems sweet enough as he burbles to Jamie’s girlfriend Amelia (Annie Parisse) about his favorite painter, one Jean-Paul Credeaux, but he’s seduced with a shrug into Jamie’s plan to forge a Credeaux and sell it to one of Jamie’s art-dealer dad’s former clients.
Said wealthy father has recently died without leaving a cent to his son, who’s hopping mad about it. But Jamie’s dismay at his unexpected poverty and disgust at the idea of having to actually earn a living doesn’t exactly inspire sympathy; as played with much unction by Howerton, he seems just as spoiled as the millionaire clients he’s railing about, and eminently capable of talking his way into prosperity one way or another.
More sympathetic is Amelia herself, a would-be singer who’s increasingly demoralized at scrambling after fame on the city’s mean streets while cadging a living as a bad waitress. “When I was growing up in Ridgefield, all I ever thought about was coming to New York to be a singer. And now I’m here and all I ever think about is money,” as she puts it plainly.
Plain, alas, is not the word for most of Bunin’s writing. The vocabulary and cadences of the play’s dialogue are so artificial you can practically see the words on the computer screen as they come out of characters’ mouths, despite the careful sprinkling of “ums,” “uhs” and “you knows.” Does anyone really begin sentences with phrases like “Upsettingly enough…”? Chunks of exposition and thematic pronouncements also thud loudly: “I feel like I’m running a marathon against my own disillusion and exhaustion,” as Amelia says rather too neatly.
While she poses nude for the faux Credeaux, Amelia and Winston fall into each other’s arms (note to aficionados of pulchritude: cute nude couple on view extensively!). In the second act, the fallout from their relationship is charted in increasingly shrill and confused confrontations among the trio. Also dubiously depicted is the unraveling of the hare-brained forgery scam.
There’s little director Michael Mayer can do to authenticate the unconvincing emotional convolutions of the play. “The Credeaux Canvas” concludes with a final meeting between Amelia and Winston in which she inquires about the secret of Winston’s faux Credeaux. “I was just faking it,” he answers concisely. So is the playwright.