Class attitudes and cultural differences collide like the paint and colors of a Jackson Pollock painting in Stephen Sachs’ comedy “Bakersfield Mist,” which Invisible Theatre opened Wednesday night.
Sachs, inspired by news accounts of a woman who purchased what she hoped was a Pollock painting in a thrift store, puts Maude Gutman (Susan Kovitz) in The Sage Brush Trailer Park in rural California with a painting that might — or might not — be a pricey Jackson Pollock, which she picked up for $3 as a joke gift for a friend. Maude is a rough-hewn, profanity-spewing unemployed bartender who is anxious to prove the authenticity of the supposed Pollock. She wants it to be real, and not just for the money.
A former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dubbed the “Vatican of art” in the play, and expert from the hoity-toity International Foundation for Art Research in New York, Lionel Percy (Roberto Guajardo), comes to Maude’s trailer to inspect the painting and determine if the piece is real or if it is a fake. Buttoned-up Lionel fancies himself the ultimate “fake buster.”
As the two clash over the painting’s authenticity, the definition of art and what art should be and do is explored. Lionel’s richly textured description of the difference between the shallowness of a drip-and-splatter painter who copied Pollock, and the fire, power and allure of Pollack, which Guajardo delivered with passion, gives pause and pushes consideration of personal views of art.
Notions of instant impressions and authenticity percolate as the characters verbally spar, lubricated by a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Kovitz brings unsophisticated Maude’s hard-living, working-class wit and sensibilities to the surface and she evokes empathy.
Guajardo’s physical comedy — the blink of his eyes and the way he leans to the side as he inspects the painting — shows his character is more that a stuffed suit with a matching handkerchief. And can Guajardo deliver a line oozing with sarcasm.
Director Gail Fitzhugh, effectively working with Invisible Theatre’s small, angular stage space, begins the play by having Kovitz flit around the trailer while Guajardo was more rigid, seated on a chair with his briefcase and papers in front of him — another signal of their differences. Fitzhugh also adds depth to the characters’ personalities as underlying demons are revealed. Maude won’t be intimidated or belittled for her lack of education or social status, and Lionel packs professional and personal baggage.
Set designers James Blair and Susan Claassen must have spent weeks rummaging through secondhand stores and yard sales. The entire play takes place in the tiny kitchen-dining-living area of Maude’s trailer, which is furnished with bright, bold colored patterns on the dinette, portable snack tables and hand-crocheted afghans, and is crammed with bric-a-brac like M&M’s-themed tchotchkes. Maude calls herself a pack rat and freely admits that she frequents thrift stores and the bottoms of garbage bins for her décor.
However, Maude’s trailer, cluttered with her trashy treasures and a mishmash of colors, textures and themes, is full of her vitality. They give her pleasure. Like a Pollock painting.
Unlike a Pollock painting, the play has patronizing points. Kovitz and Guajardo make strong adversaries with dueling personalities, yet the characters are overly stereotypical. And the name “Gutman” dealing with first impression? Oh, please.
And the ending is just too precious.
Overall, “Bakersfield Mist” is an enjoyable production that will have you thinking about art and its intrinsic value, and maybe checking the painting section the next time you’re in a thrift store.