Maude inhabits a backwater Californian trailer park.
Lionel, her visitor, inhabits New York’s elite art circle.
She (Kathleen Turner) is a hard-drinking hard-smoker. A frequenter of junk shops, who has come across what she thinks is an undiscovered Jackson Pollock painting, and with it the chance to transform her life.
But he (Ian McDiarmid) is a connoisseur, and he says that’s no Pollock.
She invested in that painting three dollars, and a lot of hope.
But he only invests in professional experience. ‘My opinion means something', he puffs. ‘Yours does not.’
You get the picture. Stephen Sachs’ art-themed play Bakersfield Mist is a simple odd-couple story. It depicts complementary opposites with an approach less suggestive of painterly experimentation than of a formulaic Dulux colour chart.
Spiritual Maude (‘I didn’t find this painting, this painting found me’) is quashed by rational Lionel, the academic conquistador. And then slightly un-quashed, when they discover they have unlikely similarities.
‘Be a person’, Maude implores the robotic pointyhead Lionel. He reveals he is human after all, and just as spiritual and superstitious as she, by performing an entertaining little ritual to inspect the possible Pollock. How does he know it’s non-genuine? Pure faith. ‘One must enter the art world as one enters the priesthood.’
‘Be a person,’ Lionel implores the enigmatic Maude. She explains her sad situation, and her suicide attempt, and how this painting has come to offer redemption to her. How will she prove its authenticity? Pure dogma. ‘I know what art is. I like pictures too, you know.’
A standoff. The play then wavers amid two almost flippant episodes with a gun and a knife, which result from the head-on collision of Maude’s desperation and Lionel’s dispassion. Maude presents some fingerprint evidence that strongly suggests this really is a Pollock painting.
The play is then free to cut to the chase; to question whether authenticity and greatness in art (so transcendent, and sublime) are actually knowable things at all, or just arbitrary calls made by connoisseurs whose own judgement might be questionable. ‘My first impression of you was completely inaccurate’, Lionel admits to Maude after some deep exchanges.
But then, Lionel admits that his verdicts are instinctive. ‘The painting has no artistic soul’, he says. And through everything, he upholds that conviction. It’s not that he doesn’t recognise his own arbitrariness — but that as an academic fundamentalist, the words ‘I choose not to believe it’ are good enough.
It looks like there’ll be a little cleverness at the end: like the departing Lionel will wipe his specs, rotate the canvas, take another look and declare it a masterpiece after all. As a play, Bakersfield Mist might represent a new hanging of old ideas — but no, it does not have a Columbo moment. There is a half-suggestion Maude’s got it right, but really, we’re back where we started; the ending to this brief little play being deliberately pretty flat, and satisfyingly dissatisfying.
Bakersfield Mist runs until 30 August at The Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5LA. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary review ticket.