by Lee Hall
Directed by Max Roberts
Presented by The Manhattan Theatre Club
at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

The Pitman Painters by Lee Hall is, for most of its first act, an invigorating dramatization of the premise that art is classless, and can be for—and by—anyone with the passion to investigate it. Based on a true story, it starts in a church basement room in English mining country, mid 1930s, where a small group of mine workers (Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Brian Lonsdale, Deka Walmsley and David Whitaker) congregate, having sent out for an art appreciation teacher. When he (Ian Kelley) arrives, he tries at first to teach his standard survey course, but finds quickly that they don’t at all relate to his references or observations. They want to know what art is and what it means. Somehow he has to impart to them that it’s hugely personal and not quantifiable in an absolute sense. And he eventually hits upon the notion of having them create their own art by way of understanding. And they do. Soon to become a unique and famous collective of working class artists with unique styles and an equally unique working class perspective that the art world embraces.

                        The process of students and teacher acclimating to each other, the gradual dawn of understanding in the pupil’s eyes and hearts, makes for a winning and wonderful narrative. Once the turning point of their renown has been reached, though, the story doesn’t really have anywhere else to go, because it’s proven its point and fulfilled its thematic promise; thus, its second act, which tries raises issues of group good vs. individual profit, lower class fitting into art society & etc. feels like an effortful attempt to keep the drama alive via ancillary events that, despite what may be the historical continuation, simply aren’t as important or meaningful. In fact, I’m not sure I’ver ever seen a play with quite such a “split personality” before, in which the first act fairly sings and the second marks time and, at its worst, even drags.

                        But the British cast, imported with the play and production from the West End, which also includes Lisa McGrillis and Phillippa Wilson, is an outstanding one; and the direction of Max Roberts is solid and clear. And given all that, the play must be said yea. For just as art need not be restricted to limited exposure, a genuine work of art need not be “completely right.” A play especially can live, breathe and find its way. For now it seems sufficient that The Pitman Painters is good enough…

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