Bruce J. Robinson's "Another Vermeer" proves that thinking can be as dangerous as a street fight. By blending actual history with thundering speeches on the purpose of art, the playwright gives mortal consequences to rhetorical arguments.

Bruce J. Robinson’s “Another Vermeer” proves that thinking can be as dangerous as a street fight. By blending actual history with thundering speeches on the purpose of art, the playwright gives mortal consequences to rhetorical arguments. With that kind of urgency, you don’t have to agree with the play to be excited by it.

Robinson energizes his ideas by grounding them in one of the art world’s most infamous scandals. Just after WWII, Dutch painter Han Van Meegeren (Austin Pendleton) awaits execution for selling a “lost” Vermeer painting to Nazi commander Hermann Goring. But Han counters the charge of treason with a more shocking truth: He forged the Vermeer, as well as dozens of other supposed masterpieces. When the play opens, Han must prove his innocence by successfully faking a Vermeer from his jail cell.

At first, Han, played by Pendleton as a charmingly arrogant cad, seems certain of his genius. After he convinces guileless prison guard Bram (Justin Grace) to be his model, he peppers the lad with statements about artists creating immortal truths. Even a forger, the play suggests, can make beautiful work.

But dissenting opinions literally spring from Han’s mind: a former professor, an art critic, and even an American soldier all storm on to challenge his belief in his talent.

Imaginary characters are usually poisonous, since they’re too bluntly symbolic to be interesting. Robinson, however, lets Han’s hallucinations evolve, as though the painter were learning how to argue with himself.

Professor Korteling (Dan Cordie) changes from Han’s ardent fan to his wounded father figure, and he makes a compelling point about the damage liars do to themselves. Cordie’s elegant perf, which morphs from manic energy to almost motionless despair, personifies Han’s self-doubt.

However, scribe saves the bulk of his debate for Dr. Bredius (Thom Christopher), an art critic whose bad reviews inspired Han’s forgeries. The painter frequently crows about fooling Bredius with an earlier Vermeer rip-off, thus proving the painter’s superior gift. Initially, when the doctor is just imaginary, he’s a sneering fool who validates Han’s ego.

Then, in a satisfying plot twist, Bredius appears in the flesh, carrying a possible key to Han’s salvation. A head-on battle allows both men to eloquently defend their work, but it also exposes their pettiness and cruelty.

It’s easy to disagree with some of Robinson’s points — for one thing, a good art critic doesn’t have to be a good painter — but at least he demands a strong response. It’s far more engaging to reject strong arguments than to get bored with half-hearted dialogue. The script stays meaty until the final, preachy scene, when Robinson insists we should honor Han as a rebellious hero and disregard his detractors. It’s a didactic conclusion unworthy of the earlier debates.

Director Kelly Morgan heightens the moral with sentimental blocking  that has Pendleton pose like a holy man.

Helmer also goes overboard with solo scenes of Han shooting drugs, drinking and muttering to himself. Those are superficial character details, and they tack several minutes to the show. Better to stay focused on the production’s successful core.

Another Vermeer

Abingdon Theater Complex; 52 seats; $20 top

Production

An Abingdon Theater Company presentation of a play in one act by Bruce J. Robinson. Directed by Kelly Morgan.

Crew

Sets, Jeff Pajer; costumes, Deborah Caney; lighting, Tony Kudner; sound, Kevin Lloyd; production stage manager, Yuriy Nayer. Opened April 6, 2008. Reviewed April 3. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Han Van Meegeren - Austin Pendleton Bram Van Ter Horst - Justin Grace Jan Vermeer, Bartus Korteling - Dan Cordie Lt. Thomas Keller - Christian Pedersen Dr. Abraham Bredius - Thom Christopher
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