A MIST-ery on Canvas, at NJ Rep

Yeah, but is it Art? Linda S. Nelson and John Fitzgibbon try to fathom what the #$&% is going on in BAKERSFIELD MIST, the seriocomic duet that begins its engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch this week.  (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

It’s a mystery, is what it is — maybe not a tea ‘n crumpets Agatha Christie whodunit, but a bit of a twister nonetheless. One that substitutes a yard-sale painting for a purloined heirloom — and the trailer home of an unemployed bartender for the drawing room of Lady Frothingbottom.

In the seriocomic duet Bakersfield Mist, any semblance of neatly wrapped, take-him-away-constable resolution is dumped down the trap door in favor of even more question marks — which is kind of fitting when the object in question is a canvas that may or may not be the work of American abstract expressionist (and “action painting” advocate) Jackson Pollock; a figure whose work elicits catcalls of “That ain’t Art” even when it’s authenticated as the real deal.

According to the script by LA-based Stephen Sachs, the possible Pollock is purchased for about three bucks by one Maude Gutman — a boozy ex-barkeep who transforms herself into a savvy and self-educated art expert when she hits upon the realization that the castoff canvas could be valued at as much as 50 million dollars.

Enter Lionel Percy — an elite East Coast art appraiser, scholar, curator and unimpeachable authority whose dealings with the Bakersfield-based connoisseur of kitsch and krap are not as clear-cut as he might have hoped.

A critically acclaimed hit in its West Coast world premiere and subsequent productions across the continent, Bakersfield Mist (the title plays off Pollock’s seminal Lavender Mist) comes to the Upper Wet Side for the first time in a new production at New Jersey Repertory Company that goes up in previews December the First and continues at the Long Branch playhouse through January 22.

Directed by NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, the show marks the mainstage debut of actress and occasional producer Linda S. Nelson as Maude — and cast here as Lionel is John FitzGibbon, the debonair and plummy-toned character actor whose many appearances at NJ Rep have included portrayals of real-life writers Lord Tennyson, Delmore Schwartz and Erich Maria Remarque.

This is somehow fitting, since the play is inspired by a real-life story — a story that, as detailed in the documentary feature Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?, is very much an ongoing situation (and one that — shades of Melvin Dummar and the tale that became Melvin and Howard — centers around a former truck driver and grandmother named Terri Horton). With the very foundations of What Is and What Isn’t REAL called into doubt — and the actors conveniently gathered for rehearsal — upperWETside decided to investigate.

Above: LAVENDER MIST No. 1 by Jackson Pollock, 1950

upperWETside: So is BAKERSFIELD MIST a comedy or a drama? A mystery or a mood piece? A sort of SLEUTH-style game of cat and mouse, or something more like THE GIN GAME?

JOHN FITZGIBBON: This is a play about a relationship between two very unlikely people. It acquires a force as it goes along…and it unfolds quite nicely, taking some surprising turns.

LINDA S. NELSON: The playwright has done a terrific job, putting together these two characters from opposite ends of the world.

Tell us about your characters; I know they’re based on real people, but is there a bit of license taken here; some broadening into a two-sided country/city dynamic for entertainment’s sake?

LINDA S. NELSON: Maude’s a simple salt of the earth type…honest, funny, very gutsy. A lot of things have happened to this woman; she’s what you’d call trailer trash. But there’s a basic goodness about her.

She’s a person who goes from knowing nothing about what she’s found…the sort of person who always just kind of finds things in other people’s trash…to researching the fine details of the art business and art community.

JOHN FITZGIBBON: My character’s function is to be an appraiser; someone who is trying to prevent forgery.

I was the head of an international foundation in art research; for 12 years I was a curator and director at the Metropolitan Museum; I teach abstract expressionism at Princeton. So you see I’m quite a social figure in the art world…

Wait, you did all THAT?

No, no; I meant that my character has that background. I tend to say ‘I’ when I describe the character I’m playing.

Well, you fooled me for a moment there. ACTING!!

JOHN FITZGIBBON: I actually did work in an art gallery for a while some years ago — Wright Hepburn Webster. In fact, I was working there when we had an exhibition of works by this forger, David Stein, who was in prison at the time…we were legitimately selling forgeries in that case.

So, is being an actor, especially one who’s portraying someone who existed in real life, akin to being a forger? 

JOHN FITZGIBBON: Oh, I don’t know; I hope I’m a good forger…I think that truly good forgers tend to put a certain amount of themselves into their work, and the same is true of actors. You try to bring that part of yourself to it, even if you’re playing someone who’s well known to the audience — and to trust in that.

In prepping for your roles, did you guys research the actual case, or did you deliberately keep your distance?

JOHN FITZGIBBON: We viewed a documentary on the woman who still claims it’s real. In the play she’s offered 2 million for the painting; in real life she was offered 9 million. But she’s still living with her old buddies in the trailer park, with a painting that doesn’t fit, which she bought for a friend as a hoot.

LINDA S. NELSON: Seeing the documentary reinforced my belief in her story. Art experts have said it’s not authentic, but they did so not out of any overwhelming evidence, but out of intuition and their own historical knowledge.

Basically, the burden of proof has been placed upon her claim as to the painting’s authenticity…but why doesn’t anyone try to prove conclusively that it’s NOT real?

JOHN FITZGIBBON: It isn’t as easy as you might think to paint like Pollock. But there was this one forger who painted thousands of phoney Pollocks, and he lived in the same area as ‘Maude.’

So then, in the absence of any conclusive evidence pro or con, where do you think the truth lies?

JOHN FITZGIBBON: The truth is that the world wants to be fooled! It’s said that as many as 40 percent of the pieces in the Met are fakes.

LINDA S. NELSON: You can say that the truth lies somewhere in between. If a work of art moves you, does it really matter if it’s done by Joe Blow or Michelangelo? This play lets the audience figure these things out for themselves.

Bakersfield Mist previews Thursday and Friday, December 1-2 at 2pm and 8pm (tickets $35); opens December 3 at 8pm (that one’s sold out, folks), and continues until January 22, 2012 with performances Thursdays through Sundays (all shows $40). Note that a holiday season hiatus will be in effect, with no performances scheduled between December 18 and January 5. For ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information, take it right here.