In that jewel among teen movies, “Clueless,” Alicia Silverstone’s character uses the term “a full-on Monet” to describe an overstyled classmate. “It’s like a painting, see?” she explains. “From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.” From a distance, “Impressionism” must have looked pretty good to its platoon of producers, with a top director, two distinguished lead actors long absent from the New York stage and a plot about mid-life love to speak directly to the prime Broadway play demographic. But did no one get up close enough to read Michael Jacobs’ pretentious bore of a script?
The central lesson imparted in this highfalutin schmaltz — earnestly spelled out onstage and in an educational program note — is the reverse of the full-on Monet. Like the late-19th century art movement that supplies the play’s title, life can distract us with momentary impressions, but it’s necessary to step back and absorb the big picture to appreciate the nuance and possibility of what’s before us.
That perspective is lacking in New York art gallery owner Katharine (Joan Allen), who works alongside world-weary British photojournalist Thomas (Jeremy Irons), their days largely undisturbed by customers. Verbose Katharine rants about oafish subway passengers, cranberry muffins, packages tied up with string and whether God is paying attention to her. Punctilious, more taciturn Thomas lectures on coffee, interjecting mildly sardonic remarks that either puzzle or irritate prickly Katharine. It’s all terribly strained in its cleverness and terribly dull.
Jacobs’ “Cheaters” had a brief Broadway run in 1978, and he moved soon thereafter into film production (“Quiz Show”) and television (“Charles in Charge,” among other series). His overly precious new play smacks of sitcom in its articulate characters, who don’t so much speak dialogue as deliver lines that overlap but rarely flow organically. However, the writing aims higher than sitcom. It’s Hallmark sentiment masquerading as intellectual sophistication, with every one of its characters’ stories and memories contorted into a laborious metaphor for love and life.
That might be palatable if we had some investment in seeing the central couple hook up. But Katharine and Thomas are a bloodless pair without an ounce of body fat between them; one worries they might snap something should they ever get physical.
It’s hard to imagine what drew Irons — last on Broadway in “The Real Thing” in 1984 — to this starchy role. Thomas is clearly meant to be droll, enigmatic and soulfully scarred, but he gets little help from the playwright in setting himself up as Katharine’s emotional rescuer. Allen is adrift as well, playing a character with no defining stamp. She’s sometimes brittle, sometimes breathy and frail, and often whiny, her defenses formed by the rejection of her father and more than one potential lover.
Director Jack O’Brien fills in both characters’ backgrounds via visual segues from Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections of art works on a downstage scrim, accompanied by Bob James’ doodling piano. The transitions could hardly be more literal: “La Toilette” by Mary Cassatt ushers in a memory of young Katharine (Hadley Delany) being bathed by her mother (Allen) with a ceramic pitcher and bowl (was there no plumbing in 1966?) as her frosty father (Irons, doing a lousy American accent that comes and goes) abandons them. Only Allen’s tears indicate that any feeling is involved.
Images of maternity, childhood and budding sensuality cue their dramatic correlations in Katharine’s life. (The less said the better about an atrocious scene in which Irons doubles as a bohemian artist who almost becomes her lover.) Thomas’ photos of African wildlife or a doomed Tanzanian child set the scene for a recap of his harrowing experiences abroad. Their emotional and psychological states are also onerously mirrored in the art works for sale in Katharine’s gallery.
The overwritten play’s most engaging moments come when two minor figures are onstage. Marsha Mason has a semi-satisfying dramatic arc, playing a woman swathed in flashy furs and haggling over the price of the Cassatt aquatint while rankling at becoming a grandmother. And Andre De Shields adds warmth as the baker of the aforementioned muffins, who turns out to be a more sensitive interpreter of art than Katharine, for all her training. These characters at least bring some life to what’s otherwise a dead zone.
Others, like a wealthy art buyer (Michael T. Weiss) who stirs Katharine’s romantic hopes and a young couple (Margarita Levieva, Aaron Lazar) bursting with happiness and optimism, are just mechanisms to shake the central duo out of their inaction.
O’Brien has assembled a slick team of craft collaborators who give the pretty production a veneer of class. Distress signals went out when the original opening date was pushed back by 12 days after preview audiences proved unresponsive. The creative team used that time to condense the show from two acts into one, presumably to stanch the intermission exodus. But there’s not much here worth saving; the play is a dud, as thin on humor as it is on emotional rewards.