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March 18, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, March 18, 2005

Van Gogh's lackluster love affair Van Gogh's lackluster love affair (March 18, 2005)

TheatreWorks opens Nicholas Wright play in Palo Alto TheatreWorks opens Nicholas Wright play in Palo Alto (March 18, 2005)

By Julie O'Shea

Not every love story is worth telling.

Historians have being trying for years to untangle the mystery behind Vincent Van Gogh's London romances. They haven't had much success. And to this day, there is still no conclusive picture of whom the famed painter was dating in his early 20s.

But really, who cares? Apparently, Nicholas Wright does.

As Wright sees it, long before there was Mrs. Robinson, there was Ursula Loyer, an older, widowed schoolteacher whose profound sadness wins the heart of a young, naive Van Gogh. But somehow the story of this May-December relationship, which Wright penned for the stage in 2003, lacks the drive and sexual energy that made "The Graduate" such a success.

Evidently, Wright's philosophical meanderings must have made sense to some folks. His "Vincent in Brixton" went on to win London's prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Play and was nominated for both a Tony and Outer Critics Circle Award.

Last weekend, "Vincent" finally found its way to Northern California. The show's regional premiere opened at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto under the direction of TheatreWorks' veteran Kent Nicholson.

There is no doubt that Van Gogh -- the 19th-century Dutch painter best known for "Starry Night" and a penchant for self-mutilation -- was a complex, brilliant and mentally unstable individual. (He eventually committed suicide in 1890 at age 37.) Art scholars have filled volumes, trying to dissect Van Gogh's genius and puzzling madness.

Given the artist's richly layered history, it seems a little odd that Wright chose to dramatize a rather small and, at first glance, insignificant blip in Van Gogh's life during his brief stay in London.

"Vincent" tries to parallel Van Gogh's sexual awakening with his growth as an artist. This is an interesting concept. But the ingenuity is quickly muddled by the playwright's endless use of metaphors, which become more convoluted and confusing as "Vincent" moves into the second act.

Wright essentially based his play on a few documented facts and then uses creative license to fill in the missing details. What is known is that a 20-year-old Van Gogh, who was not yet a famous artist, settled in Brixton, a town just outside of London, in the summer of 1873. A boarder at the Loyer family house on Hackford Road, the young Van Gogh was supposedly smitten with Eugenie Loyer. However, early biographers apparently mistook Eugenie for her widowed mother, Ursula.

The play is centered around the fabled romance of Van Gogh and Ursula. But it's not until we're halfway through the show that we realize this is a love story.

The action is almost painfully slow. The characters spend a great deal of time cooking and making small talk about the wood-paneled kitchen set's cherry-blossom trimming and "weather-beaten" table. And when they're not discussing food or room decor, the conversation almost always turns to Van Gogh's libido.

Playing the part of a real person is a huge responsibility. Jacob Blumer portrays Van Gogh with alternating rage and humor that seems more cartoonish than genuine at times.

However, when he is not trying to be funny, Blumer does have some nice stage moments, particularly when Gloria Biegler's Ursula is by his side.

Blumer and Biegler carry most of the show and have a surprising sexual chemistry that they don't get a chance to fully explore. Had this romance been given the opportunity to blossom, perhaps "Vincent in Brixton" wouldn't have been such a snooze.

E-mail Julie O'Shea at

What: TheatreWorks presents "Vincent in Brixton" by Nicholas Wright Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto When: Tuesday March 22 at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 8 p.m. with additional performances at 2 p.m. on March 19 and 26 only; Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (April 3 at 2 p.m. only). Closes April 3. Cost: $20-$48 Call: 903-6000 or visit

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