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In ‘Bakersfield Mist,” the elusive art of judging art

Mike Nussbaum plays art scholar Lionel Percy and Janet Ulrich Brooks plays Maude Gutman in Stephen Sachs play, "Bakersfield Mist," a TimeLine Theatre production at Stage 773 through Oct. 15. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

If you’ve been following news of the art world in recent months you may have come across two intriguing front page stories. In one, actor Alec Baldwin accused a major New York gallery owner of selling him a canvas by painter Ross Bleckner that was a more recent version of the original painting he had requested. In another (a case that played out in a Chicago courtroom), a man who wanted to sell an early painting by Scottish artist Peter Doig he believed to be worth $10 million, was told it was not a work by Doig at all.

‘BAKERSFIELD MIST’
Highly recommended
When: Through Oct. 15
Where: TimeLine Theatre at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $38 – $51
Info: (773) 327-5252;
http://www.timelinetheatre.com
Run time: 90 minutes
with no intermission

Whether being purchased or sold by an individual or a museum, matters of authenticity and provenance (the trail of ownership attached to a work of art) have long been of crucial importance. Forgeries and copies are as old as the making of art itself, and ownership (marred by everything from wartime looting to ordinary theft), can be dubious. But art is now seen as a major investment – a high-priced commodity – as much as a thing of beauty, wonderment, mystery or delight. And egos are heavily involved in its vetting and acquisition.

Janet Ulrich Brooks and Mike Nussbaum face off over a possible Jackson Pollock canvas in the TimeLine Theatre production of "Bakersfield Mist." (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

Janet Ulrich Brooks and Mike Nussbaum face off over a possible Jackson Pollock canvas in the TimeLine Theatre production of “Bakersfield Mist.” (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

All these issues come into play in Stephen Sachs’ two-hander play, “Bakersfield Mist,” now receiving its Chicago premiere in a TimeLine Theatre production that stars the ideally paired Mike Nussbaum (nothing short of a natural wonder at the age of 92 – and yes, you read that number correctly), and Janet Ulrich Brooks (the superb Chicago actress who deliciously holds her own in this battle of opposites).

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‘Bakersfield Mist’ explores Jackson Pollack mystery painting

The place is a trailer park in Bakersfield, California, where the middle-aged Maude Gutman (Brooks), has lived for decades, filling her tacky mobile home with an array of awful kitsch – from macrame wall hangings to glass bottle wind chimes, all purchased at  thrift stores and yard sales. A bartender recently fired from her job, Maude’s personal life has been filled with pain (I will not share the details here), but she is feisty, foul-mouthed and smart, despite her lack of formal education.

Arriving at her door suffering an instant case of severe culture shock is Lionel Percy (Nussbaum), a renowned and unabashedly snooty scholar whose specialty is the American Expressionist movement, particularly the work of Jackson Pollock, the renegade painter fabled for his “drip canvases” of the 1950s. Now a widely respected consultant and “connoisseur,” Percy was a wunderkind who once ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art (making him, as we are told, something of the Pope in the art world’s Vatican), and then, in the wake of a scandal, moved on to many other illustrious positions.

Percy has traveled from New York to Bakerfield because Maude has hired him to determine the authenticity of a canvas she bought for $3 as a joke gift for a friend, but subsequently was led to believe (by a high school art teacher, and then by a detective friend of hers) might well be an unknown painting by Pollock worth many millions of dollars. Percy’s imprimatur would make all the difference, and, unquestionably, change Maude’s life.

Percy (in many ways a dead ringer for Leo Steinberg, the eminent art historian and critic who, as it happens, was my teacher at Hunter College), is at once overtly snobbish and covertly insecure. He has nothing but contempt for Maude, who he considers ignorant at best, and very possibly crazy. As it happens, she turns out to be every bit as tough, shrewd and passionate in her way as he is. Anything more should not be divulged here.

Sachs’ play, inspired by the true story of Teri Horton, a long-haul truck driver who believed she found a Pollock, is about class warfare as much as it is about art. Though formulaic in many ways, TimeLine’s two bravura actors make you forget all that and  luxuriate in the banter and the battle of personalities. And both Nussbaum and Brooks can knock back shot glasses of Jim Beam with the best of them. In fact, if you are searching for the very definition of “high art” you will find it in the fireworks between these two – with Nussbaum soaring in an aria-like monologue about the transformational power of a great work of art, and also generating instant laughter simply by raising an eyebrow in aesthetic horror, and Brooks capturing both the true grit of a survivor and the quiet, sometimes comic desperation of a pipe dreamer.

Director Kevin Christopher Fox has set the 90-minute play at a brisk pace, and the picture-perfect set designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec – and brilliantly “dressed” by prop designer Mary O’Dowd, who clearly scavenged many thrift shops herself for this project – could not be more perfect.

Janet Ulrich Brooks and Mike Nussbaum in "Bakersfield Mist," a TimeLine Theatre production at Stage 773. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

Janet Ulrich Brooks and Mike Nussbaum in “Bakersfield Mist,” a TimeLine Theatre production at Stage 773. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)