Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The setting is Amsterdam immediately following the Nazi withdrawal from the Netherlands, and the story is about two men looking for revenge. Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes) is an electrical engineer turned Dutch Resistance fighter who suddenly finds himself in charge of the transitional post-war government. Pillel targets prominent art dealer Han van Meegeren (Anthony Lawton) to stand trial on charges of collaboration and treason for selling a rare Vermeer painting, considered a Dutch national treasure, to the Nazis. Pillel believes a conviction will cause other collaborators to come forward, but he also resents the lavish lifestyle van Meegeren enjoyed while so many were suffering under the Nazi occupation.
Han van Meegeren is a con man out for revenge against the art critic whose bad review ended his career many years ago. For van Meegeren, the trial is an opportunity to embarrass the artistic elite and receive the recognition he has always craved. While pursuing their goals, Pillel and van Meegeren slowly readjust to life without war and discuss fine art, authenticity and hatred.
Thanks to a half dozen fascinating characters and lots of intelligent dialogue, The Craftsman is a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking play. The spectacular ensemble brings the strange history of Han van Meegeren to life with nuance and depth. Peakes gives a compelling intensity to the stalwart yet troubled Pillar, subtly evolving over the course of the play. Mary Lee Bednarek is appropriately resolute as the beleaguered Johanna van Meegeren, Han's privileged but much abused wife. Dan Hodge plays lead prosecutor Boll with ire smoldering just beneath the surface. Anthony Lawton is simultaneously charming and detestable as the infamous Han van Meegeren.
Lawton's excellent performance makes me wish the script offered him more opportunities to embrace the darker aspects of Van Meegeren's personality. There are plenty of references to the way van Meegeren mistreats his wife, but the audience does not see it firsthand. Lawton clearly has the skill to make a morphine withdrawal scene powerful and disturbing, but it's so short that all we get to experience is momentary discomfort. This tendency to be restrained where it could be bold prevents The Craftsman from having an emotional impact on the audience.
Graham's delicate approach to issues that are potentially upsetting is especially problematic when it comes to the war. Thousands of people starved to death in Amsterdam during the last winter of World War II, but there are only tepid allusions to the desperation and death of the war that has just ended. There seems to be no shortage of the supplies needed to conduct a trial. Everyone's suit is well tailored and in mint condition. There are a handful of passing references to a lack of food and medicine post war, but taking just a few opportunities to highlight the dark side of these characters and the horror of the war could make The Craftsman as moving as it is intellectually stimulating.
That an artist's fate should not rest in the hands of a few self-appointed experts is a theme that comes up repeatedly in The Craftsman. Surely things would be better if everyone could judge the quality of art for themselves. Yet Graham's van Meegeren craves the critic's approval above all else and tacitly acknowledges the standard by which all art must be judged. Looking at one of Vermeer's paintings is like standing in the sunlight; it is the emotional effect that makes art exceptional.
Graham's newest play is interesting, lots of fun to watch, and will leave you with loads think about. But when it comes to visceral impact, there is still room for improvement.
The Craftsman runs through December 10th, 2017, at the Lantern Theater Company's St. Stephen's Theater, 10th & Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia PA. For tickets go to www.lanterntheater.org or call (215) 829-0395.
Playwright: Bruce Graham
Director: M. Craig Getting