The arch, self-conscious “art above all” dialogue that permeates most of scripter Mary Fengar Gail’s one-acter has the conversational veracity of a freshman art appreciation textbook downloaded into the mouths of five capable, hard-working thesps who cannot overcome the shortcomings of the material. Helmer Hope Alexander has instilled some impressive thematic segues, as well as visual and aural pizzazz, into the proceedings, including a mood-evoking original music score by Max Kinberg, but she, too, is ultimately defeated.
It is a pity. Submerged beneath the ponderous rounds of harangue about the veracity of art and its place in the cosmos, there is a potentially captivating love story between emerging teenage artist Fay (Linda Park) and her demanding mentor Muriel (Kimberly de Leon), a paintbrush diva who trumpets, “I am the missionary, the apostle of art.”
From the outset, it is obvious that a good part of Muriel’s “mission” is to get her young charge into bed. Yet, Fay’s misplaced passion and devotion to Muriel later proves to be the foundation for her eventual liberation as an artist. Gail would have had more success delving more deeply in this relationship while eliminating some clunky subplot shenanigans that diffuse rather than enhance the thrust of the work.
The action is set in the reclusive Dark Harbor, Maine studio of adult Fay, a successful artistic “hack” who is mentoring her teenage niece Francine (Debra Azar). Alexander’s fluid staging impressively segues back and forth from the present to the past as Muriel shifts from being a posed painted figure in the background of Fay’s present-day studio, to the voluptuous and imposing wine-swilling seducer of Fay’s teenage years. Fay is decidedly more honorable and nurturing in her relationship with Francine.
Into this present/past mix, the scripter thrusts the mother-daughter duo of Phyllis (Natasha Goss) and her malcontent teenage offspring Lucy (Khamara Pettus). It seems that ultra-sophisticated Phyllis is determined to commission Fay to do portraits of her and her daughter, and money is no object. In fact, the prime reason for their presence is to provide another springboard for Gail’s awkward philosophical sparring, centered on Phyllis’ materialistic belief that art has no relevance at all. After all, you can’t eat it. As a side issue, Phyllis also has the hots for Fay.
On the plus side, the performances are generally first rate. Park exudes such dignified, understated intelligence and sensuality, it is easy to believe Fay is the object of such pointed lust by Muriel and Phyllis, adoration from Francine and grudging respect from Lucy. De Leon’s Muriel believably makes the transition from freethinking voluptuary to steely-eyed businesswoman who knows the exact moment when Fay transitions from copyist to artist and is not above trying to cash in on it.
Azar’s Francine adequately projects the callow imperfections and idealisms of an aspiring artist who is taking the first tentative steps in her own journey to maturity. Pettus infuses Lucy with a palpable anger that has been the legacy from her grotesquely fatalistic parents. Goss doesn’t quite overcome the implied stiffness of her character to reveal the wounded creature lying just below Phyllis’ icy facade.
Production values, especially Jeff Robinson’s cleverly-planned art studio setting, are simple but adequately convey the flow of the work.