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Poor Portrait

Leonard Nimoy is not a playwright. This cuts to the quick of the problems with Vincent, currently at Main Street Theater. In 1984, Nimoy, best known as Star Trek's Mr. Spock, devised a one-man vehicle for himself about another character partly known for his ears: Vincent van Gogh. But Nimoy didn't stop there. Rather than portray the complex painter outright, Nimoy decided to tell the story through Vincent's brother, Theo.

Basing his text on Vincent's letters to his brother, on Theo's reminiscences and on his own observations (and reworking Phillip Stephens' play Van Gogh), Nimoy -- with slide show in tow -- toured the country as Theo, who regularly slips into Vincent. A vanity production? You bet. "What do you want your artists to be?" Theo thumps. "Will you not simply accept the contribution of the individual? Won't you judge him for his work or must he satisfy your social needs as well? I've heard it said among you, 'He was mad, he was strange, he was not like us.' No, he was different. And you are blessed by that difference, for he gave you beauty. Some of you, some day, will learn to appreciate that beauty." Maybe. But it won't be through Vincent.

The play -- set in a Paris lecture hall, 1890, the week after Vincent's death -- is as sketchy as the lecture of a teaching assistant in front of an Art History 101 class. Chunks of van Gogh's life are skipped, and the facts that are presented are familiar and handled superficially.

Part of the problem is that Vincent's letters aren't terribly insightful or revealing. He expresses his religious desires (he once wanted to be a preacher) in cliches; though struggling Belgium coal miners made a large impression on him, his reports lack acuity; and his romantic musings could be anybody's (a particular letdown, since two loves of his life were a cousin and a whore). His letters from the sanatorium to which he was involuntarily committed aren't all that mad -- neither memorably outraged nor particularly insane. And only once does he write meaningfully about his art: "I want my paintings and my subjects to 'live' ... I must learn to paint what I feel, not what I see, but what I feel about what I see .... Last week we were given a cast of the Venus de Milo to draw from. I was struck by the power of that figure so I accentuated her hips. Well, the instructor was a purist. He tore my drawing with the furious strokes of his crayon. I rose from my chair and I said to him, 'You don't know what a woman is like, damn you! A woman must have hips and buttocks and a pelvis in which she can hold a child!'" One longs to hear what Vincent had to say about his more famous pieces.

Or what Theo thought about them. Theo says Vincent's work evolves but we aren't told how or why; either Theo's thoughts aren't on record or Nimoy isn't able to imagine them, but in any case, there are few attempts at understanding Vincent's inspiration or craft. Instead, Theo -- an art dealer, Vincent's art dealer -- makes passing references to subjects such as Vincent's ambivalence about exhibiting his work and then drops them. Nimoy also has Theo talk like this a lot: "Amazing, the man was amazing." Nor are there explorations into how the art world responded to Vincent. Theo calls Gauguin a "bastard" but fails to probe Vincent's important peer. The brothers' parents are virtually nonexistent. And other seemingly significant biographical motifs -- how Vincent was "born twice," how he took on savior roles -- are charted, only to be abandoned. None of Vincent's relationships get their due.

Which means there are no fully realized characters on-stage. Indeed, Vincent is merely an amalgam of art history sound bites, while Theo, the "main" character, is given over to such summations as "I found a wonderful wife" and "It was all I could do to send him what [money] I did and still maintain my own affairs." Even if Nimoy feels that Theo's personality must be subsumed by Vincent's -- that it must only come out in reference to the artist -- Nimoy fails to illuminate how Theo felt about supporting Vincent economically, professionally, spiritually. This is particularly unacceptable since Theo was surely the most important person in Vincent's life. Though Theo categorizes Vincent's famous bouts with madness, the first sale of his work and the time Vincent tried to teach him to paint, he doesn't comment upon them, merely being a mouthpiece for headlines instead. "Love the poor, Vincent, love the lost, the outcast, the destitute, the homeless, even love a bastard like Gauguin!" he wails. "But for God's sake, Vincent, when will you ever learn to love yourself?"

To Nimoy's credit, the slides (mostly of Vincent's work) do enrich the words a bit, even if the words rarely enrich the slides. But Nimoy hasn't quite worked out how to use the slides: though they mostly accompany the performance, more than once events are brought to a halt so that a montage can be presented. It's anyone's guess here why the pictures are arranged in the order they are.

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