Theater Review: Masterpiece (a reading)

Masterpiece, a previously “lost” work of the distinguished contemporary poet, playwright and critic MZ Ribalow, received a reading last night at the National Arts Club in New York City. Erudite and suspenseful, talky and moving, the play begs for a full production – with, one hopes, a cast as good as the foursome that read yesterday.

Based on the true story of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who made a small fortune forging Vermeers in the 1930s and 40s, the plot is part The Sting – with a snooty art critic’s reputation as the mark instead of a crime boss’s money – part “The Gift of the Magi,” minus the gloom – and part thriller. The cast brought Ribalow’s dense and elevated language brightly to life.

Patricia Randell was silky and centered as the forger’s love interest and the story’s moral fulcrum; Dara Coleman, like a young Jeremy Irons, richly embodied the elegant despair of the overlooked Salieri-like near-genius; Tom Kleh’s notes of childish vanity as the duped critic rang unfailingly true; and Victor Slezak, given the best lines and playing them up with exquisite, dry-as-dust timing, nearly stole the show as the police inspector hot on the trail of one of history’s most successful, and seemingly most colorful, frauds.

The script deals easily with complex matters of philosophy and culture: what is authenticity? What is genius and what mere craft? What is the role of the critic? “I paint,” van Meegeren declares, “because to not paint makes me miserable.” There are no villains or heroes in Ribalow’s telling. He stabs at the artist’s as well as the critic’s pretentions: “Actual prison,” the acerbic detective tells the painter, “is not a metaphor to those in it.” The script is loaded with such pithiness, yet its characters touch the heart as powerfully as its language tickles the brain.

Seldom is a simple reading, with actors holding scripts and sitting in chairs, as engaging and entertaining. One wishes producer Pat Flicker Addiss (Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life; Little Women; Shout!) the very best in her efforts to get this wonderful work staged.