Reviewed by Will Stackman
The Huntington Theatre Company seems to choose one new play revolving around painting or fine art every season. This year's offering is a short piece of juvenilia by West Coast playwright, Mat Smart, a young author given to name dropping. "The Hopper Collection" was seen at San Francisco's Magic Theatre last fall, and should have been returned for a rewrite at that point. The script is a long one-act that aspires to the American Absurd, but is instead ridiculous, piling unlikely situation on peculiar characterization. The audience is asked to believe that a millionaire has purchased Edward Hopper's "Summer Evening" for his wife, since she believes she was the inspiration for the young woman in the painting. Incidentally, this picture is the only one in their "collection." She is seriously deranged and apparently keeps trying to kill him. He's an amateur boxer--of sorts. This mismatched pair keep the picture in the living room of their seaside mansion while living separate lives in adjacent wings of the house. They haven't let anyone else see the picture for years.
Enter a young man with a fatal brain tumor, who's written to the wife asking to see the picture. Why? Because his girlfriend Sarah, who left without explanation one night, sent him a postcard of the painting. When "Sarah" shows up, she's an art student doing a project on Hopper, whose name really turns out to be Natalie. They met in a coffee shop where the boy was staring at the postcard--reportedly for hours. She apparently told him who to write to, though how she'd know is unclear. Add quirky dialogue that seldom rings true, and the result is naive derivative playwrighting, trying to be smart, and falling woefully flat.
The millionaire Daniel is played by Bruce McKenzie, a middleweight at best, who copes with the script as best he can. Leslie Lyles is Marjorie, his ditsy wife. Her approach is often over the top, which would be more effective if her character had somewhere to go. Young Brian Leahy is Edward, who deals with the eccentricities the author has imposed on the character, including immanent death, without becoming ridiculous, but without creating an identity. Thus B.U. senior, Therese Barbato, playing Natalie/Sarah is the most believable, suggesting a humanity the rest of the characters lack. The whole exercise comes off as a waste of talent, despite the efforts of director Daniel Aukin from the Soho Rep, where Smart is currently working on another script.
With typical extravagance, the Huntington has created a large but empty realistic set, decorated out of a glossy magazine. The back wall is sliding doors which look out on trees which rustle in the wind, thanks to offstage fans, for no good reason. There's little logic to the furnishings. If the intention was to suggest sterility, designer Adam Stockhausen has surely succeeded. Kaye Voyce's costumes, especially Marjorie's several changes, suggest the characters, but don't add to the play. Lighting and sound are unobtrusive. The technical aspects of the production are as devoid of relevant meaning as the script.
Smart aligns himself with contemporary playwrights such as Adam Rapp and Sarah Ruhl, and credits an interview with Albee at the Eugene O'Neill Center as inspiring him. He is working hard to produce scripts and get heard, but might perhaps step back and decide if he really has anything to say. "The Hopper Collection," which was submitted as his MFA project at UC/San Diego, has all the earmarks of collegiate cleverness without substance, merely speculation. Actors, try as they might, can only add so much to a script whose message, if any, is that we can't live in the past. As his younger characters might say, for no good reason, "That's whack."