David Hare’s 1986 “The Bay at Nice” is a remarkably delicate and backward-looking concoction from the creator of such expansive critiques of contempo life as “Pravda” and “Stuff Happens.” Yet in its minor key, it’s of a piece with other Hare inquiries into incomplete lives, notably “The Secret Rapture,” and there’s rapture to be found in Anne Gee Byrd’s spellbinding lead perf at the tiny, cozy New Place in North Hollywood’s arts district.
In the world of limited-resource theater, less can certainly be more. Through a mere quartet of once-elegant chairs, a side table and three framed paintings, designer Dean Cameron fully evokes a chilly gallery in Leningrad’s Hermitage circa 1956, to which Valentina (Byrd), one-time Paris expatriate and intimate of Henri Matisse, has been summoned to confirm the great artist’s authorship of a small canvas found in a trash heap near a Riviera hotel.
The gallery’s chill is nothing compared with that between Valentina and her daughter Sophia (Annie LaRussa), an amateur painter and wife of an art-hating Soviet official. Despite a torrent of what appears to be perennial maternal contempt and dismissiveness, daughter stands her ground this day to enlist mother in a desperate, life-changing project.
Every heart has its reasons, and these are gradually revealed over the course of helmer Anne McNaughton’s keenly observed and gripping 75 minutes.
As in Jeffrey Hatcher’s similarly premised (and similarly brief) “A Picasso,” lately at the Geffen, an authentication inquiry opens the door to fascinating reminiscence of a master’s private and artistic life. “No one drew the body better than him,” Valentina claims of her former teacher (and, perhaps, lover). “He could make you think of bed. And yet when he was working, he said, he took a woman’s clothes off and put them back on as if he was arranging a vase of flowers.”
Hare reveals the legendary genius’ character in order to examine, by contrast, another life lived large: that of a “wife-of/student-of/mother-of,” a seemingly formidable figure in both Bohemian Paris and Soviet Russia who never quite achieved personhood in either place. And in Sophia, Hare offers a much less gifted, unprepossessing woman who now has a chance to come into her own. No wonder sparks fly between them.
Byrd, in the role the late Irene Worth originated in London, instantly reveals Valentina’s inner torment from her first hissed epithet, “This graveyard!” Exhibiting exquisite physical self-possession throughout, she nevertheless dabs, then claws at her hair, her neck, her cheeks as if trying literally to pull her soul out of her body. Byrd is so focused and so utterly right in every line reading that she holds us in a grip as tight as the one that strangles Sophia’s self-respect.
John Combs possesses the proper measure of diffident integrity as Sophia’s hoped-for savior, but the other actors fare less well. LaRussa comes on too strong, with too early and too frequent eye contact with Valentina to fully convince us of the daughter’s timorousness and intimidation.
As a museum official, Charlotte Di Gregorio indulges in an overarticulated, mugging caricature. Perhaps had McNaughton directed her in a more severe and humorless vein, she would get more laughs and fit into the fabric better.
Toward the end, Valentina is left alone with the Matisse painting and her memories, and even the costume provided by Cameron — a good Socialist cloth coat and black dress, set off by a shimmering, gold-flecked silk scarf — embodies the woman’s sad duality. Suddenly lit by designer Peter Strauss against a simple window effect to the strains of a Parisian tune, she breaks down, and our hearts break with hers as we recognize a life once full of promise and now bereft of possibility.