The Craftsman, a new play by Bruce Graham receiving its world premiere from Lantern Theater Company, bills itself as a tale of intrigue, deceit, and suspected treason in post–World War II Amsterdam. In reality, it’s a barely disguised j’accuse against that favorite punching bag of artists the world over: critics.
Graham suggests his protagonist, the failed painter turned successful dealer Han van Meegeren (Anthony Lawton), would risk everything — his reputation, his freedom, even his life — to get even with critic Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolen). Bredius, pretentious yet powerful, derailed van Meegeren’s artistic career in its infancy.
Years after their initial dustup, van Meegeren brings Bredius several newly discovered Vermeer paintings to authenticate, which the scholar does with zeal and certainty. They’re forgeries, of course: van Meegeren’s own work.
To fund his lavish lifestyle, van Meegeren sells his now-anointed national treasures to prominent Nazis — among them Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command. After the Reichstag fire, these actions land him in the crosshairs of Captain Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes), a Resistance fighter now tasked with prosecuting Dutch sympathizers. Van Meegeren’s confession complicates matters. Does duping a Nazi rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors?
"Our pompous ass"
The play's setting also offers Graham a way to explore the fraught moral and ethical equivocations that often arise in periods of turmoil, and its shell is based on true events. The real van Meegeren did “uncover” several Vermeers during the late 1930s, some of which he sold to high-ranking party members for a tidy profit. He was accused of treason and arrested as a collaborator before confessing to forgery. He died of a heart attack in December 1947, a month after being sentenced to prison for the comparatively minor crimes of fraud and falsifying documents. After his true motives were discovered, some regarded him as a national hero.
That story might have made for an interesting stage thriller, one that Graham could execute with wit and suspense; a snappy, tension-filled yarn should be right in his wheelhouse. Past endeavors like North of the Boulevard, Stella and Lou, and According to Goldman have shown an ear for sharp dialogue and a knack for crafting well-defined characters who fit neatly within the worlds they occupy.
But like present-day David Mamet, Graham has an axe to grind. He barely seems interested in filling out the frame narrative, and most of his groan-inducing dialogue sounds like it was lifted from a second-rate spy flick (sample: “He’s a pompous ass, but he’s our pompous ass”). He fails to mention that van Meegeren also sold fakes to his fellow Dutch citizens, under the false guise of protecting their national heritage. That nugget of truth doesn’t serve his purpose.
This myopic approach leaves usually fine actors like Dan Hodge (as a Jewish prosecutor who survived the war in hiding) and Brian McCann (in a host of character parts) flailing in underdeveloped supporting roles. Han’s conflicted wife Johanna (Mary Lee Bednarek) comes across like a refugee from a screwball comedy. And while Peakes certainly looks the part of a dashing captain, Graham imbues Pillel with little actual authority.
How much homophobia is too much?
Instead of fleshing out the central story and building three-dimensional characters, Graham channels all his energy into crafting a two-hour anti-critic harangue. Bredius serves as an avatar for the entire profession, a clueless windbag who gets off on elevating his own opinions and ruining lives. Despite an admirably committed performance from Lawton, van Meegeren becomes little more than a mouthpiece for Graham to air a litany of grievances against the sad little men who have “never put brush to canvas” but feel secure in their ability to “judge other people's creations.”
The play also contains a shocking amount of homophobia. Graham casts Bredius as a self-hating queen with an insatiable appetite for schtupping wayward sailors, and suggests he might be a pederast as well. Van Meegeren latches onto this as the final nail in the coffin of his credibility. Who could ever trust the expert opinion of a homosexual?
Nolen mercifully keeps his performance free of effete affectation, but Graham seems intent on lumping him into the queer-villain archetype — right down to a comically diabolical fake mustache that practically twirls itself. Regardless of the play’s setting, seeing this kind of characterization in a brand-new work feels unforgivably retrograde.
It’s yet another unnecessary element that carries The Craftsman farther away from what it should be. Lantern’s production has much going for it: director M. Craig Getting keeps the action moving steadily forward; set designer Meghan Jones makes good use of the St. Stephen’s Theater’s problematically curved stage; Janelle Kauffman’s projections evoke the simple elegance of Dutch art. (Unfortunately, Kayla Speedy’s costumes often look too contemporary — a common issue when small-budget theaters take on period pieces). Christopher Colucci’s sound design creates a tense mood without becoming intrusive.
But even this array of skilled artists cannot escape a script that’s more screed than storytelling. The entire endeavor is perhaps best captured by a line Johanna speaks near the end of the play, as she reflects on her husband’s unfulfilled desire to become a painter of the first order. “Perhaps he did have some talent,” she opines. “But not enough.” Everyone’s a critic.