This portrait of art-world authentication would remain two-dimensional if not for finely detailed performances.
TimeLine Theatre Company opens its season with the Chicago premiere of a comedy by Stephen Sachs about a trailer-park resident who's convinced the thrift store painting she bought for a few bucks is an original Jackson Pollock, and the art expert she invites to inspect the work. Kevin Christopher Fox will direct the two-hander, featuring Janet Ulrich Brooks and Mike Nussbaum.
Two characters tussle over a painting in Stephen Sachs’s 2011 two-hander, partly inspired by a true story. At times in the one-act play’s first third, it threatens to retread Yasmina Reza what-is-art territory. But the question Bakersfield Mist turns out to concern itself with is not what is art, but what is authentic. Its answers, though, are just as slickly manipulative.
The setting is the California trailer-park home of Maude Gutman (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a hard-drinking erstwhile bartender who thinks the ugly painting she bought for five bucks at a thrift store is in fact a lost Jackson Pollock. Lionel Percy (Mike Nussbaum) is the snooty former director of the Met who’s been dispatched by the authorities in such matters to pass expert judgement. All of this, remarkably enough, hews fairly closely to a real-life case that became the subject of a 2006 documentary, Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?
But taking that story as a jumping-off point, Bakersfield turns out to be the kind of playwriterly exercise in which Sachs contrives to keep the boorish broad and the art snob together long enough to break out the whiskey and begin to see past each other’s surfaces, beyond the “blink” (as Percy describes his infallible first gut instinct).
The brief proceedings are predictable enough from there; both play and playwright side with Maude as the realest of the real, even if her painting isn’t. But if the play is no masterpiece, it’s a treat to see artists the caliber of Brooks and Nussbaum dig into it. Brooks gives the kind of earthy, brassy performance you could see a Laurie Metcalf in had a different Chicago ensemble gone for this piece, while old master Nussbaum imbues Percy with a good deal more texture than he’s given on the page. There’s some art you just can’t fake.
TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773. By Stephen Sachs. Directed by Kevin Christopher Fox. With Janet Ulrich Brooks, Mike Nussbaum. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.