There are 384 paintings by French Impressionist Pierre Bonnard of his wife in the bath. Why so many? And why did Bonnard enter a Paris museum to continually update a painting, even as it hung from the museum wall? These are the key questions director-writer Israel Horovitz sets out to answer in The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath, the first homegrown production from his own New York Playwrights Lab. Horovitz deserves credit for traversing more than a century in the play and portraying at least a dozen characters with a great degree of economy (only three actors star in the production). Bath opens in the 1940's, as a man (John Shea) defaces one of Bonnard's paintings. The man turns out to be the artist himself, and he is adding fresh paint to the work nearly 20 years after its creation.
The action then shifts to the present day, as Luc and Aurelie (Michael Bakkensen and Stephanie Jannsen), two French art history students, puzzle over the mystery of the altered painting. This device allows Horovitz to explore the details of Bonnard's personal life, which had a direct but cryptic influence on his paintings.
Horovitz has done an exhaustive amount of research to piece together his subject's life, much of which is on display here. As it skips back and forth over various points from the first half of the last century, Bath dwells on two women who had an important impact on Bonnard. Marthe, the woman who appeared in the 384 paintings, is Bonnard's sickly, and betrayed, wife. Chaty is a woman Bonnard met later in life, and the one whom he labels his true love.
Jannsen does a dynamic job portraying both of these characters, and perhaps Horovitz's aim was that the two women should appear the same, as they both struck something in Bonnard. Still, in a play with as many temporal shifts as Bath has, I found it confusing to see the same actress play two such important roles. Bakkensen, on the other hand, portrays a variety of Bonnard's peers (with a peerless French accent, to boot), but these are all minor characters and any inability on the audience's part to keep them straight is not as significant.
Nonetheless, the idea of the muse's importance to the artist is a novel one to explore. The scenes depicting Bonnard and his creative process are the play's richest. He relies on women for sustenance as others rely on food. When his heart is full, his artistic vision is at its most boundless. Bonnard may be immature and feel entitled to treat people—particularly women—however he likes (and Shea bravely toes the line between the sympathetic and the unlikable). But his devotion to Marthe, which amounts to an avalanche of lies, makes sense for an artist as solipsistic as this one.
Unfortunately, the modern story fails to parallel the historical one. As Luc and Aurelie study the differing versions of Bonnard's "Young Woman in the Garden," they grow closer together, both giving in to a mutual attraction that seems to have started before the audience meets them. Yet both belong to others, and despite the fact that these others appear to have been unfaithful, the two resist ending their current relationships. Because of Bath's structure, their time together feels both episodic and protracted, and ultimately anticlimactic. These modern scenes serve to spell out the facts of Bonnard's career, but the scenes with the painter are already clear and don't require more detail.
Other devices seem unnecessary, including the two projection screens above the actors and the bathtub that sits onstage, hardly used. Bath still seems a work in progress, and yet the proficiency of its trio of actors suggests the show has potential. For those who wish to hear more about the creative process behind the play, Horovitz, Bakkensen, Jannsen, and Shea are appearing after the Wednesday and Saturday matinees to discuss the piece. These talk-backs indicate that there is plenty to say. I'm just not sure this play finds the best way to say it.