THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

A question of authenticity in ‘Bakersfield Mist’

Ken Cheeseman portrays a haughty art expert and Paula Langton plays a woman with a tragic history - and a painting that could be worth millions. Ken Cheeseman portrays a haughty art expert and Paula Langton plays a woman with a tragic history - and a painting that could be worth millions. (Jeff Zinn)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / August 16, 2011

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WELLFLEET - There comes a moment in Stephen Sachs’s “Bakersfield Mist’’ when a hitherto stuffy art expert works himself into a frenzy as he reenacts the convulsive process Jackson Pollock used to create his paintings, all while delivering an erotically charged aria of commentary.

It’s a scene that illustrates the power of great art to transport us, or maybe just to make us act plumb strange. But in the case of the woman watching the expert’s gyrations with a look of wry amusement, art has the power to make her rich beyond her wildest imaginings.

In an absorbing Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater production of this new comic drama under the direction of Jeff Zinn, the question of authenticity, in more than one sense of the word, is at issue.

As Willy Russell did with “Educating Rita,’’ Sachs throws together two characters from different worlds in “Bakersfield Mist’’ - one overeducated, the other street-smart - and lets the sparks fly.

Like Russell, Sachs has a weakness for overly glib repartee, a sentimental streak, and a tendency to italicize his message. But Sachs also has a Russell-like empathy for his characters and a knack for constructing verbal showdowns through which we can see that, for at least one of the two people onstage, the stakes of this encounter are life-or-death.

Maude Gutman, an unemployed bartender in a leopard-print blouse who is played by Paula Langton, lives in a trailer decorated with bric-a-brac she has bought at thrift stores. On the wall of her trailer hangs a kitschy painting of two clowns, but that’s not the painting the renowned and haughty Lionel Percy (played by Ken Cheeseman) has grandly deigned to inspect.

Lionel has arrived at Maude’s trailer (by limousine, no less) to determine whether or not her latest thrift-store purchase, a work of abstract expressionism that she bought for a paltry $3, is actually an undiscovered Pollock worth many millions of dollars.

After reeling off his credentials, including a lengthy stint as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lionel tells Maude that he is an expert at detecting forgeries. Indeed, he is a “fake-buster’’ with absolute faith in the infallibility of the Gladwellian “blink,’’ his instant, intuitive knowledge of whether a painting is genuine or not.

As Lionel will discover, Maude is no slouch herself when it comes to sizing things up and detecting fakery. (“Be a person,’’ she says to Lionel at one point, a line he will sardonically echo later on). Their verbal clash escalates as she insists, with increasing adamancy, that he authenticate the painting. Beyond the question of whether the painting is the real thing or not lies the question of whether greed, or something deeper, is driving Maude’s pressure campaign.

Slowly, Lionel’s sneer gives way and he stops seeing Maude as a cartoon figure. He comes down from the Olympian heights of art and confronts the complications of a flesh-and-blood human being who has a tragic personal history that is connected, at least in her mind, with the painting.

At times, Langton captures Maude’s combination of ferocity and desperation; at other times, the actress leaves you with the feeling that there are depths to the character that she hasn’t plumbed. Cheeseman, though, gives an exceptional performance that leaves no facet of Lionel unexplored. When the art expert trains the full force of his scrutiny on Maude’s painting, Cheeseman contorts himself into a pretzel, turning the simple act of appraisal into a Buster Keaton-like ballet of physical comedy. When Maude forces Lionel into a discussion of a major, reputation-damaging career setback, the once-formidable art expert quivers with impotent fury at the memory.

Lionel starts from a place of such certitude that he can say to Maude, without a trace of irony: “My opinion means something. Yours does not.’’ By the end, “Bakersfield Mist’’ suggests that not just Lionel’s authority might rest on a shaky foundation, but everyone else’s authority, too.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

BAKERSFIELD MIST Play by Stephen Sachs

Directed by: Jeff Zinn. Sets, Ji-youn Chang. Lights, John R. Malinowski. Costumes, Anne Miggins. Sound, Nathan Leigh. A coproduction of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater

and New Repertory Theatre.

At: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Julie Harris Stage, Wellfleet. Through Sept. 4. Tickets $29. 508-349-9428, www.what.org