GLOUCESTER -- In the life and art of the French painter Pierre Bonnard, playwright Israel Horovitz has found a rich source of meditations about art, life, and the connections and contradictions between them. The result, ``The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath," now receiving its world premiere at Gloucester Stage, does indeed have a secret to tell us, and a rather melodramatic one at that. But its deeper aim is to ponder the more abstract mysteries that Horovitz finds in Bonnard.
These mysteries have to do with the complexity of love, the conflict between the drive to create and the destruction it can wreak, and, hanging over everything, the question of whether even the most radiant art can lighten the ever-present shadow of death. You know, little things like that.
Out of all this, Horovitz creates an often fascinating piece of theater that feels as if it's still evolving. Using just three actors to fill a multitude of roles, he deftly intertwines a mystery plot involving Bonnard and his mistresses with a modern-day tale of two art students, who are investigating both that mystery and their own feelings for each other.
``Mme. Bonnard's Bath" manages to draw parallels between the historical and the modern without hitting us over the head, and the combination raises interesting questions about love and work. If it sometimes feels a little too loosely put together, it also has the pleasingly unfinished air of a work in progress, a kind of breezy insouciance that deflates the tendency toward pomposity that any play about Art must fight.
Horovitz gets his story rolling with a scene that, he says, was his initial inspiration for the play. In a small provincial museum, an old man walks in and starts daubing paint on a Bonnard masterpiece. A scandalized guard tries to stop him -- only to be told that, in fact, the man is Bonnard, and thus has every right to revise his work whenever he gets a fresh idea.
You can see the appeal of such a story to a playwright, whose work must change and evolve as it moves from one person's ideas on paper to a live performance by a whole team of collaborators. ``Mme. Bonnard's Bath" itself has already gone through several workshop versions; no doubt it will change still more as it moves on from Gloucester, first to Richmond, Va., and then to New York's Theatre Row theater in February.
But ultimately we experience a play, like a painting, as a ``finished" work. And in this one Horovitz, as both playwright and director, makes some puzzling choices. For instance: All the characters are French, so why do some speak English with heavy French accents while others sound American? Why does one offstage character's name apparently change from Nicole to Lucienne? And do we really need two narrators telling us how long it takes starlight to travel to Earth?
The narrators periodically interrupt the action to remind us that we're watching a play. It's a clever echo of Bonnard's own habit of inserting himself into many of his paintings, with an arm here, a reflection there; the playwright, like the painter, wants us not only to see his art but to see that it is art, not life -- something created, and created by a specific person at a specific time. But there's a bit too much of this sort of thing, because we get it faster than Horovitz seems to expect.
The actors -- particularly Harold Dixon, who makes even Bonnard's most puzzling actions ring true -- flow beautifully through the quick and complex shifts in time and mood that Horovitz demands. Jenna McFarland's simple set, with projections of Bonnard's paintings and other images, carries us from Paris to Provence and back.
It's a fascinating journey. With a little more refinement, it could also become a tighter and more moving one.