Scripter Steven Dietz has crafted a technically impressive but uninvolving study of artistic genius and its effect on a group of life-challenged folk, each of whom is desperately seeking validation of a flawed agenda. Helmer Jon Kretzu guides an excellent five-member ensemble through Dietz’s intricate thematic structure, fluidly orchestrating the interplay of contemporary characters and those from the 19th-century world of Vincent van Gogh (David Carey Foster) as they invade the psyche of artistically blocked painter Patrick Stone (Brian Monahan). The clever format far outdistances the scripter’s meandering, self-indulgent musings on the nature of true art.
Driving the action is Monahan’s emotion-charged portrayal of central protag Patrick, a supposedly talented contemporary artist who hasn’t been able to complete a canvas in three years, since the mysterious death of his mentor Jonas Miller (Michael Mendelson). Monahan makes tangibly viable Patrick’s loathing of almost all art, including his own, and especially that of van Gogh, whom he condemns as “the most untalented and over-rated artist in the history of the world.”
When Patrick is blackmailed by corrupt art authenticator Rene Bouchard (Leo Cortez) to forge a lost self-portrait of van Gogh that was supposedly completed just before the artist’s suicide, Patrick is thrown into a spiritual and artistic quagmire. The search for this mythical portrait had been a lifelong passion of the deceased Miller. Also complicating matters is the condemning presence of Miller’s long-neglected daughter Hallie (Ann Farrar), a former lover who believes Patrick is responsible for her father’s death.
With admirable craftsmanship, scripter Dietz conjures up ghosts from the past to play point/counterpoint with the contemporary characters. The key figure is van Gogh himself (portrayed with laserlike intensity by Foster), whose final days play out in Patrick’s studio, complemented by sophomoric but oh-so-serious artistic bull sessions between Foster’s van Gogh and Monahan’s Patrick. These are not well-matched combatants, pitting the contemporary skeptic who hasn’t completed a painting in three years against the frenzied dynamo who often completed a painting in a day.
The three other ensemble members acquit themselves well, performing personality-linked dual roles. Aside from van Gogh-adoring Dr. Miller, Mendelson portrays Paul Gachet, the reverential physician who treated van Gogh’s mental and physical ailments during his final months. Gachet had a neglected daughter, Marguerite, also played by Farrar. Cortez’s conniving art authenticator Bouchard is perfectly allied with van Gogh’s supposed friend, artist Paul Gauguin, who revels in casting aspersions on the artistic authenticity within the work of his contemporaries.
A skilled craftsman, Dietz has managed to “paint” an evening of theater, rich in layered composition, without bothering to sketch in the emotional bonds between his characters. These individuals present themselves with all their colorful flaws without ever evolving or becoming engaged within a viable dramatic throughline. If “Inventing van Gogh” is to have legs, Dietz needs to instill a beating heart within this pretty but lifeless body.
Helping to fill out Dietz’s dramatic canvas are the evocative production designs of Dave Nofsinger (sets), Michael McNamara (lights), Judith A. Ryerson (costumes) and Walter T.J. Clissen (sound).