Now in its world premiere from Lantern Theater, the latest play by Philly’s favorite playwright Bruce Graham is based on a true story. It’s a great story.
I first encountered its subject, Han van Meegeren, in a subsection of an art history textbook, where he was pictured in a courtroom in front of a large canvas. In reality, and in Graham’s THE CRAFTSMAN, van Meegeren was accused of treason by Holland’s post-World War II provisional authorities for selling a national treasure to Nazi vice-chancellor Hermann Goring during the German occupation of the Netherlands. The way van Meegern proved his innocence and put his name into late-20th-century textbooks makes a delicious yarn—I wouldn’t be spoiling much about THE CRAFTSMAN by revealing it, but I won’t.
Graham must’ve read van Meegeren’s story somewhere (there was a New Yorker article on it a few years back) and thought: “That’d make a great play!” Indeed, his well-crafted work explores many compelling issues.
Treason. Van Meegeren (Anthony Lawton), at turns confident con man and insecure artist, laughs off the death sentence as he’s stiffled under the guard of soldier Augustun (Brian McCann), an “officious chap” who begins most sentences “my orders are.”
Holocaust. A Jewish lawyer (Dan Hodge) emerges from hiding enraged by the casual antisemitism which abetted the genocide of 75% of Dutch Jews. A subplot sees van Meegeren’s prosecutor confront the artist’s wife (ever-stoical Mary Lee Bednarek) for the racist language of her letters. A sub-subplot sees him lasciviously objectify her.
Revenge. Dutch people cry for revenge in the wake of Nazi occupation. But are the new authorities, represented here by resistance captain Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes), in danger of following the occupiers authoritarian ways? Director M. Craig Getting thinks so, giving Pillel an armband, straightened arm gestures, and a bellowing crowd (sound design by Christopher Collucci).
This last theme comes through in the main plot: Van Meegeren embarked upon his career as a shady art dealer partially as revenge against reviews of his paintings by art critic and “pompous ass” Abraham Bredius (a suitably blowhardy Paul L. Nolan).
But though THE CRAFTSMAN takes place against a backdrop of war, suffering, death, Nazis, genocide, and a nation finding its feet after humiliation and disaster (oh, van Meegeren is also kicking morphine addiction and has a heart condition), Graham focuses much of the drama on the painter’s quest to prove he’s a good artist.
In this context, the stakes feel remarkably low. The secrets of the plot (if not pre-known) leak early, with little attempt to build tension. Transformations of the characters—the officious guard plays chess with the prisoner, the authoritarian gets a gentle heart, the addict feels a newly healthy man—come hastily and unconvincingly.
Van Meegeren’s is still a good story. To say to a friend after the show that it didn’t make a very good play, feels different than saying it now, in print, as a critic. That’s because another theme of THE CRAFTSMAN is an artist’s revenge against bad reviews. Graham never makes van Meegeren pitious or cruel enough, or Bredius sympathetic enough (well, subplot, he is a closeted homosexual) to make us think he’s giving much added commentary to this motivation.
“There’s no such thing as a tough critic,” the painter fumes at Bredius. “Tough people don’t judge other people’s creations.”