Lady Macbeth has been scrubbing herself on stage for 400 years, and Jean-Paul Marat spends most of Marat/Sade issuing rhetoric from a tub. Now Israel Horovitz enters the arena of théâtre du bain with The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath, a lively mix of art history and hypothesis, soap opera and meditation on the cosmos. The play is a whydunit that seeks a reason for French painter Pierre Bonnard’s artistic obsession with his wife’s ablutions and, in particular, a motivation for the disturbing canvases in which Mme. Bonnard appears to float dead in the tub. Although sentimental and doubtless a bit confusing for those who haven’t boned up on Bonnard, the play holds your interest and, with its background slide show of the artist’s vivid paintings, your eye. It is also notably different from much of Horovitz’s ample œuvre, which however far it drifts from the Gloucester shore returns, except in the more whimsical comedies, to the same themes of incest and stagnation.
THÉÂTRE DU BAIN?: Horovitz’s whydunit offers art history and hypothesis, soap opera and meditation on the cosmos.
The seed of Mme. Bonnard was an anecdote Horovitz heard about a guard stopping an old man in the act of retouching a Bonnard in a museum. In the story, the defacer turns out to be Bonnard himself, brandishing a brush and declaring he’s “had a fresh idea.” It struck Horovitz as an interesting intellectual-property question: who owns a work of art, the artist or the acquirer? (Fortunately, the dramatist has copyrights.) In the play, the painting in question is the 1923 Young Women in the Garden, and the two women are Marthe de Méligny, his ill, agoraphobic, compulsively cleansing companion of 30 years, and his model and lover Renée Monchaty, who committed suicide in 1925, a month after Bonnard finally married Marthe. Horovitz imagines a connection between the mistress’s tragedy and the 1925 The Bath and, more centrally, muses on the fickleness of the human heart and the relatively trifling nature of our human interaction when placed against the grand schemes of time and art. The play jumps around in time, not just within the confines of Bonnard’s life (1867–1947) but also in the present, where a couple of French art students, Aurélie and Luc, ponder Bonnard and their own attraction despite being otherwise attached.
The world premiere of The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath is a sentimental occasion in itself: in his last official act as artistic director of Gloucester Stage Company, which he founded 27 years ago, Horovitz also directs the play. He has fine technical support from designer Jenna McFarland, who incorporates Bonnard’s bright palette into the set, and from projection designer Michael Goudzwaard, who keeps the slide show running smoothly. One can imagine how terrific this piece would look in a higher-budget production.
Harold Dixon plays the painter as a sincere if cowardly pick-up artist. When not painting a world both domestic and surreal, Horovitz’s Bonnard haunts the boulevard with a dog-eared, anguished love poem he uses as a courting tool, after which he sketches the woman in question, who pronounces the work beautiful and is rewarded with the flattering “You’re beautiful; I’m just a messenger with the news.” When he finally experiences love, or thinks he does, this Bonnard lacks the courage of his conviction. Pursuing immortality is another thing: in one of several retooled quotes from the artist incorporated in the script, he reiterates his desire to travel toward young artists of the future on “the wings of a butterfly.”
Stephanie Janssen and Scott Wichmann play the other parts: Aurélie and Luc; the museum guard awakened from a libidinous, snorting dream by the elderly touch-up artist; Bonnard mistresses Marthe, Renée, and Lucienne Dupuy de Frenelle; and confidants who include La Revue Blanche editor Thadée Natanson, coarse art dealer Ambroise Vollard, and (with little shoes extruding from his knees) the diminutive artist Toulouse-Lautrec. Making the rounds, Dixon’s Bonnard seeks advice, comfort, inspiration, and absolution from the broader characters drawn by Janssen and Wichmann, from the petulant, immortality-seeking Marthe to a lecherous Vollard in beard and fat suit.
For my money, the best Horovitz plays are the toughest: The Indian Wants the Bronx, The Widow’s Blind Date, North Shore Fish. But he’s had luck with the sentimental ones: the crotchety but piquant Park Your Car in Harvard Yard drove him to Broadway. His work has proved popular in France, and two of his better recent efforts, My Old Lady and this one, are set there. But I’d like to see some of the romantic indulgence and ponderousness removed from Mme. Bonnard. Reviewing the 1998 Bonnard show at MoMA for the Village Voice, Peter Schjeldahl called the artist’s work “edgeless.” That doesn’t mean a play about him has to be.