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The Art of Deception tries to find its emotional center

A new play about Vermeer and his forger 

Over the past four years, the self-styled collective the Playground has nurtured a number of fledgling playwrights in the region: writers whose works have promise, but aren't ready for prime time.

That in itself is no criticism: Not many plays emerge fully formed, like some literary Athena, from a playwright's forehead. In almost all cases, scripts go through multiple drafts and repeated readings on their trek toward the stage. On that trail, retraced steps are commonplace, and few are the folks you can convince to take them with you.

PlayGround's members have supported writers with a series of staged readings in a number of venues. Their process has also produced two full-length plays: Richard Krawiec's 2012 drama, Creeds, was the first; The Art of Deception, directed by Laurel Ullman from a new script by Keith Burridge and now playing at Common Ground, is the second.

Inevitably, a company makes major discoveries the first time a script is fully staged. One of the main things I learned last Friday night is how hard it is for a stage play to serve as an intermediary for works of visual art. When we only get a glimpse or two of the play's subjects, the famous forgeries that modern Dutch master Han van Meegeren made of the works of Johannes Vermeer, we realize the degree we usually depend on paintings to speak for themselves. When a play keeps speaking for them instead, we're distracted by a curiosity to see them with our own eyes.

Given the expositional dumps that are often obvious in this historical drama, the playwright labors hard to get as many facts as he can into his character's mouths about the forger who fooled the critics and the Nazis—and almost paid for his triumph with his own life. But the number of brief scenes Burridge uses to cover so many plot points ultimately cheats us of the quality time needed to let these characters fully develop.

In a script still too word-bound at present, characters frequently tell us—much more than they're permitted to show us—how dedicated, obsessed, depressed and fed up they or other characters are.

Such scenes are also visited by what I sometimes call the Greek dilemma: Repeatedly, Burridge's characters mention or report on a major change that has taken place, between scenes, off stage—preventing us from witnessing them ourselves.

Instead of seeing the moment implacable Dutch interrogator Joop Pillar (Ken Wolpert) changes his mind about van Meegeren's guilt, saving his life, we watch Pillar share a friendly drink with him later on. A longer early seduction scene could allow us to explore the psyches of van Meegeren (John Paul Middlesworth) and Joanna, his wife to be (Lori Ingle Taylor). Witnessing the moment they decide they must divorce would be more dramatic than hearing them refer to it, momentarily, later on.

At its current stage of development, The Art of Deception is a scrupulously historical, intellectual and aesthetic endeavor—but one whose emotional center and dramatic structure still needs further exploration.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Raw canvas"

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