Playwright: Stephen Sachs. At: TimeLine ( sic ) Theater, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets: 773-327-5252; TimelineTheatre.com; $38-$51. Runs through: Oct. 15
Bakersfield Mist has two wonderful actors and a witty script but it's not a good play. An entertaining production? Absolutely. A good play? No.
The story concerns middle-aged Maude Guttman ( Janet Ulrich Brooks ), a bartender who drinks and lives in a Bakersfield, California, trailer park. A junk-shop painting she bought for $3 might be a Jackson Pollack worth $100 million.
Lionel Percy ( Mike Nussbaum ), an older art authority with international credentials, arrives via private jet and limo to authenticate the painting. Maude is earthy, friendly but nervous and welcoming in her own fashion. Percy isn't overtly hostile but exudes snobbery, intellectual superiority and disdain. "I thought you were your own favorite subject," Maude observes of him. Lionel takes all of two minutes to declare the painting fake. But the story isn't the subject of Bakersfield Mist. Rather, the subject is human connection, passion and rue discovered by two people across vast social chasms. It's about authentic people, not authentic art.
Playwright Stephen Sachs swiftly draws the characters in this 90-minute piece. Each gives as good as he/she gets in a battle of decidedly different types of wit and understanding. Consummate pro Brooks and national treasure Nussbaum are far, far too savvy to overplay their roles, with dry understatement the order of the day as directed by Kevin Christopher Fox. Nussbaum's wordless facial expressions are worth the price of admission, and Brooks is a rock of dumb-like-a-fox credibility. Don't hesitate to go see them. Also worthy are Jeffrey D. Kmiec's amusing "engineered home" set, Mary O'Dowd's elaborate properties and Jared Gooding's sometimes-subtle lighting.
So what's the problem? First, Lionel is incapable of explaining his findings to Maude, basing his judgement on instinct honed by experience after an obviously cursory examination. He doesn't examine the frame and canvas or look for marks on back or sides, which authenticators would do. He refuses to consider possible forensic evidence in paint chips and hair embedded in the paint. "I choose not to believe it. ... A fingerprint means nothing," he says of scientific evidence Maude has sleuthed. Maude herself is a trailer park cliche despite Brooks' vibrant playing. I don't believe Sachs has met so-called trailer-trash folks. Finally, the play's most crucial moment is when Lionel, halfway out the door, decides to stay and reveal himself to Maude. I don't know what prompts his decision, which happens too quickly. To the play's credit, what follows is some eloquent speech about the nature and measure of art.
Picky-picky, sure. But such details are the difference between a thoughtful and amusing play, which Bakersfield Mist is, and something profound such as John Logan's Red, about artist Mark Rothko. Even comedies can have gravitas.