If only Pollock had left a fingerprint somewhere ...

If one sends a jpeg of a cartoon to an art expert, would that expert fly across the country to determine whether the cartoon is by Dali?

Probably not.

So there must be a good reason that Mr. Lionel Percy has flown to a California trailer park to scrutinize a purported work of Jackson Pollock.

That reason isn’t necessarily clear in the two-person play, “Bakersfield Mist,” written by Stephen Sachs and playing in Chicago in late summer 2016. The production boasts two exceptional Chicago actors, modern marvel Mike Nussbaum (92) as Lionel Percy and Janet Ulrich Brooks as Maude Gutman. What it lacks is enough motivation from both characters to justify spending 80 minutes together in a trailer park.

Why is Maude so adamant that the work be Pollock? 1) Either she is desperate for wealth, or 2) wants the time spent on this endeavor validated, or 3) simply wants to feel lucky. 1) is the most likely reason, until she explains how she turned down a $2 million offer from a speculator, no questions asked. (Maude must know such a transaction would be complicated regardless.) There’s no indication she has already outlined a millionaire lifestyle. So we have to think the answer is 3), the reason for the latter 50 minutes of the production.

Likewise, we never really learn why Lionel is there. A Pollock expert should be excited about the possibility of a new discovery. Lionel’s not. He should only be here if, having received evidence of some kind, he finds this a legitimate query. He has prejudged the case. His attitude conflicts with his presence. Is he doing this for the money? Not likely; he seems to view himself as a necessary policeman, but why should he care if a woman thousands of miles away is telling people she has a Pollock? He’s a retiree who wants to remain relevant.

Art appreciation is a delicious topic. The stage is a beautiful venue for exploring it. The work can carry the visual burden, attracting the eye of the audience while the actors respond to it.

Hundreds of millions if not billions are spent yearly on paintings, sculpture, memorabilia. “Mist” impressively acknowledges the incredibly fine line, maybe it’s an absurdity, of valuation. A vintage “Citizen Kane” poster would fetch well into the 5 digits, probably 6, maybe even 7. A clever but exposed reproduction, indistinguishable to the naked eye, might be worth $10. “Mist” suggests we really don’t know what we’re buying, that provenance is somehow the real value.

If Maud’s painting is worth $50 million in real terms, she should receive $50 million of satisfaction by merely having it in her home; the decision to sell should be a toss-up. We know that is ludicrous, that $50 million would undoubtedly provide more benefit for Maude than the ability to display this work in her living room.

But what if Maude were a billionaire? Buying a $50 million painting might indeed provide $50 million worth of value because to a billionaire, $50 million is no game-changer. That billionaire would find the art a beautiful item for the home, a store of value, a source of pride, perhaps a source of envy among friends. Paying 1/20th of one’s net worth for such satisfaction is not ludicrous. So the most important word in art valuation is relative. The bigger question is whether Maud, or any layman, can determine whether there is anything to appreciate in her work by simply staring at it. Percy is little help here.

Maude uncovers the key to the opinion late in the production. She makes a Solomon-like gesture, prompting a reaction that casts doubt on what Percy has said. Maude can’t be expected to be savvy enough to attempt this gesture early in their meeting, which would have greatly informed both characters of this endeavor. But we see that it resonates with her, her first indication of value.

Do the characters reveal in more subtle indications what they think the painting is worth? Not nearly enough. That Maude doesn’t safeguard the painting suggests she is far from sure it’s worth $2 million.

A film could easily and quickly depict Percy’s status in ways a play cannot. But Sachs underestimates his own visuals. The “Mist” audience can readily see that Percy is some kind of expert. Yet the script compels Nussbaum to laboriously recite Percy’s résumé to Maude as though the extra details will preempt any protest of a negative ruling.

The audience can also see that Maude lives in a trailer park and is not terribly polished. But Sachs opens the play by having Maude deliver an annoyingly long backdoor scolding to unseen passerbys walking dogs around her property. (It’s a stretch to think she and others might believe she has a Pollock and yet is still keeping it in her home rather than an insured warehouse.)

Drinking and a mini-fracas unnecessarily eat up the clock. Sachs wisely keeps the painting out of sight for a while but should’ve kept it concealed even longer. Instead of listening to a résumé, Maude could’ve enlisted an exasperated Percy’s opinions on her own drawings or woodworking. Or Percy could’ve brought a satchel of Pollock prints to show Maude (and the audience) why Pollock is significant.

Sachs has something going here. He just isn’t showing enough of it. Too much of this production is speeches. Give us the painting, and let the art speak for itself.

3 stars
(September 2016)

“Bakersfield Mist” (2016), TimeLine Theatre Company, Chicago
Featuring: Janet Ulrich Brooks as Maude Gutman and Mike Nussbaum as Lionel Percy

Written by: Stephen Sachs

Directed by: Kevin Christopher Fox, SDC

Scenic design: Jeffrey D. Kmiec, U.S.A.
Costume design: Christine Pascual, U.S.A.
Lighting design: Jared Gooding
Sound design: Andrew Hansen
Properties design: Mika Dowd
Dramaturgy: Maren Robinson
Stage management: Jinni Pike


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