by Michael Jacobs
Directed by Jack O'Brien
Starring Jeremy Irone and Joan Allen
with Marsha Mason, Michael T. Weiss
and André de Shields
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre / 236 West 45th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

In some of the artwork and ads for Impressionism, it styles itself “A New American Play,” which strikes me as inappropriately haughty for a mildly (but always agreeably) pretentious romantic comedy. But it seems to me a symptom of the (always-tacit, always-present) Hollywood inferiority complex next to Broadway; for though playwright Michael Jacobs was briefly a visitor to Broadway in 1978 with the floperoo, middlebrow sex comedy Cheaters, he has spent the intervening years in sitcom television, becoming something of a mogul, but not on the “prestige” sitcoms that are discussed with reverence, like Cheers, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, Taxi, Frasier and the like, but rather the Friday night and family hour, feelgood, life-lessons  fare: he was in on the creation, or sole creator, of Charles in Charge, My Two Dads, Boy Meets World and the puppetronic cult favorite, Dinosaurs, among others. And none of that is to be sneezed at. Niche market though it is, Mr. Jacobs cracked it and made millions of people happy (and, one assumes, millions of dollars) doing so. But you don’t return to Broadway after that without a good deal of self-awareness, and/or self-consciousness, and somewhere along the way, Impressions got the “new, American play” brand because someone, somewhere wanted us to know that this time, Mr. Jacobs was serious.

                  Which is too bad, because he’s not. Not in the sense of suddenly having crossed over into high art. Despite that the two main characters are the curators of an art studio that sells the work it displays; despite that each of the pictures being sold triggers a flashback to a seminal turning point in the lives of one or the other; despite that there is some examination of the deeper meaning of art, and beyond that the visceral connection that renders academia moot—all resonant devices and themes, to be sure—Mr. Jacobs is still a sitcom man at heart, and though the surface story is without overt “plottiness,” the little details underneath—backstory, casual references (say, to the local baker of muffins), conversations along the way all build a “plot beneath the surface,” so to speak (impressions, get it?), such that when all is said and done, it wraps up as neatly as any “special two part episode.” (All right, three-part: the show is 90 minutes long, no intermish.) And while he has learned not to crack jokes willy-nilly and sacrifice the character for the quip (I saw Cheaters, and it was a sad, strained affair, in part because he never gave the jokery a rest), he certainly smells where the funny is, and when he lets himself go there, he always lands the joke with the conspicuous panache of one who’s an old hand at it. (When the curator played by Jeremy Irons asks a question of the one played by Joan Allen that stuns her, Mr. Irons, waiting a dutiful beat, gets to quip, “You’re not from The Talkers, are you?” Strictly speaking [no pun intended] the line is meaningless, as Ms. Allen has been talking just fine all night; nor is a locution like “not from The Talkers” really in the vocabulary of the Irons character, but it’s cute way of saying I’ve taken you by surprise, haven’t I? and Jacobs can’t resist the easy lob, and nor should he, because it nets him perhaps the evening’s warmest laugh.)

                  A lot of reviews have speculated as to how and why such a huge cadre of not inconsiderable producers signed on board to present this lightweight confection of a play (16 different offices are cited), plus those lead actors, plus director Jack O’Brien, plus  a supporting cast that includes the likes of Michael T. Weiss (aka TV’s The Pretender) and Marsha Mason in roles way beneath their [perceived] industry stature; and André de Shields (whose dual roles are somewhat flashier). To me it’s not so great a mystery: Jacobs is a Hollywood money machine, probably even a good guy, or he wouldn’t be attracted to the kind of material that has become his specialty; some of these people may be old friends, some just people who want the connection to a TV series powerhouse in a business that’s all about If you’re there for me now, I’ll be there for you later. I remember… and good old cronyism. And why not? None of that seems abused here. And there’s also this: pro that Jacobs is, he probably produced a script that looks great on paper. And if the audience I sat with is any indication, Impressionism is a genuine crowd-pleaser, if not a sure-fire critic pleaser.

                  Which makes me wonder…About two years ago I became a member of a group called—now, this is absolutely real, as Casey Stengel said, you could look it up—the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (IAMTW), a collective of writers (mostly of prose fiction) from all levels of the food chain, from entry level to New York Times best sellers; the only qualification for membership is you must have authored at least one piece of published, professional licensed tie-in prose (as opposed to fan fiction, for example) original or adaptive, with its roots in a pre-existing, possibly franchised, story universe, be it a TV series, film or film series, computer game or comic/graphic novel (my Alien Nation novel for Pocket was my ticket in). It consists of a grand bunch of folks, with a sense of organization-based community I’ve never encountered before except for the BMI-Lehman Engel BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. And why does IAMTW exist? To take the industry and literati taint off tie-in writing, to finally have it recognized as the craft, indeed the art, it really is, as demanding and worthy of respect as any other kind of creative writing in any medium, worthy of praise or criticism only for how well it upholds self-evident, universal standards of quality, along with the needs of its particular specialty.

                  And I wonder…I wonder if, likewise, Impressionism might have made a better, well, impression on the critics if it didn’t seem so much like it was puffing up its profile by way of tacitly apologizing for itself. Why “A New American Play”? Why not just: “The Funny New Romantic Comedy by That Friday Night Family Hour Sitcom Guy”? And with gusto. Even in art, declaration of solidarity wears down bigotry.

                  Nothing wrong with taking pride in what you are, as long as you’re doing your job well. And to hell with the snobs. What do they contribute…?

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