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STAGE REVIEW

The picture of loneliness

The Huntington's 'Hopper Collection' slowly becomes a work of art

''The Hopper Collection" is like a horse that ambles along for much of the race, and just when you're convinced it has nothing to give, it barrels down the track and finishes ahead of the pack.

Mat Smart's new play, in its East Coast premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company, has a setup that's too long and loud for a play that is basically about loneliness and misconnection, seen through the prism of the great American painter Edward Hopper.

Hopper may seem like an odd choice to base a narrative on. His paintings have no dramatic arc; they're frozen moments in time. Their beauty is, to a large extent, in their mystery.

For much of the first half of the 90-minute play, Smart appears to be trying to give a beginning and end to ''Summer Evening," Hopper's classic 1947 portrait of a bathing-suit beauty and a young man on a porch on a hot night.

The painting, which isn't shown in the play, actually is in a private collection, and Smart imagines the owners, Daniel and Marjorie, to be a variation of George and Martha in ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- a couple at war with each other. Marjorie met Hopper as a young woman, and she has never gotten over it.

At the outset, they are awaiting the arrival of another young couple with a connection to the painting -- Edward and Sarah. She left him some time ago, sending him only a postcard with the painting of ''Summer Evening" on the front. Edward, who is terminally ill, has convinced the owners that letting him and Sarah see the painting may spark a reconciliation.

This preamble is not executed well. The older couple doesn't seem like an interesting Albee-esque variation. He growls at her; she jokes about why she stuck a steak knife in his leg and what she might do to him in the future, all with a big smile on her face and half-closed eyes. Nor is the dialogue witty enough to make this twosome anything but annoying. What did they ever see in each other, and why should we care?

Fortunately, Smart's play is carried along by a very solid Huntington Theatre Company production, featuring excellent acting and a sparkling Adam Stockhausen set design. It's the kind of airy, artful Frank Lloyd Wright-ish apartment that the couple in ''Summer Evening" might have grown into and, eventually, grown apart in.

As Daniel, whose millions have afforded them this place, Bruce McKenzie conveys both the menace and sensitivity his character requires. Leslie Lyles makes Marjorie's humor gleefully wicked. Brian Leahy is less successful with Edward, though he's the weakest character in the play. Edward wears his illness, earnestness, and forlornness on his sleeve, making for a particularly unsympathetic character, even if he is dying.

But Therese Barbato, a senior at Boston University, all but saves the day as Edward's love interest, in part because she is so good at finding the same qualities that Hopper invests his figures with -- loneliness, self-doubt, and mysteriousness.

Her character is also something of a catalyst for the play's fine second half. Albee's influence on Smart is all to the good as the play progresses.

As it turns out, Smart is using the painting to get to the emotional core of his characters. His point seems to be that we have to live lives that aren't frozen in time, or in the illusions we build on remembrances of things past. (Unlike Albee, there's a hint here that there is something grand about those illusions, and perhaps a bit of fantasy isn't the worst thing in the world.)

Director Daniel Aukin and his design team do a superb job of making Hopper a palpable presence by the play's end. As does Smart. The 26-year-old is wise beyond his years about how people live, and don't live, their lives. There is a measure of innocence as well as experience in Hopper's painting, and those two qualities are apparent in Smart's play as well.

''The Hopper Collection" also unveils a real theatrical flair. Here's hoping Smart learns to make it apparent a little earlier in the next play.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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