What do art forgers and the theater have in common? Both try to convince you that something is real when it’s not, and both do it with the expectation of financial gain. That’s the provocative premise behind David Leddy’s fast-paced 65-minute two-hander LONG LIVE THE LITTLE KNIFE, which began as a mini-commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London’s British Museum, then became a full-length hit at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and is now enjoying its American premiere with Inis Nua Theatre Company.
Combining the theme of art forgery with the format of a dramatic recreation of the real playwright’s faux “verbatim” interview with his fictitious characters, the lines between artifice and reality become increasingly blurred, disorienting, and puzzling. With repeated breaks through the theater’s fourth wall and the actors directly addressing the audience during the staged double monologue, recollections, and re-enactments, we are left to discern the truth and to ponder what and whom we can trust—not only in art but also in life–in director Tom Reing’s fully engaging production of Leddy’s delightfully dizzying fiction.
Corinna Burns and Tim Dugan star as Liz and Jim, petty swindlers “trying to make an honest living” by selling fake designer handbags to an acquisitive public looking for a bargain and unwilling to pay a real price for the real thing. When they realize that there’s even more money to be made by artificially inflating the prices of unknown artists and in forging masterpieces by famous ones, despite their lack of talent and dearth of knowledge about modern painting techniques, they begin their hilarious counterfeiting caper through an entrepreneurial art world, questionable spirit world, and dangerous underworld (suffice it to say that the titular “little knife” does not refer to an artist’s palette knife!).
Meghan Jones’s set design encompasses both the stage and the audience, transforming the entire theater space into an artists’ studio, hung all around with unstretched paint-spattered canvases and drop cloths. Sudden shifts and malfunctions in the lighting (by Andrew Cowles) signal switches in locales and scenes–some that are, and some that are “not part of the show,” and Aaron Oster’s clear sound renders the highly animated actors’ frequently changing accents and multiple characterizations fully comprehensible.
Noah Levine is the stage manager, whose presence is seen throughout—a constant reminder that this is a play, not reality. But Leddy interjects facts about actual art thefts (the 1990 heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) and art forgers (Hans van Meegeren, the Dutch painter who sold one of his many fraudulent Vermeers to the Nazis), and Burns and Dugan are so amusing and enthralling in their performances as con artists Liz and Jim, and in their imitations of all the other characters in their recounted tale, that we are tricked into forgetting that they are actors, not forgers telling their own true story. In so doing, a self-referencing theatrical layer is woven into the theme of cunning, giving a nod to Boccaccio’s famous concept “Ars simia naturae” (“Art imitates life”) and putting the double in double-cross. LONG LIVE THE LITTLE KNIFE will keep you guessing right up to its clever ending, and enjoying every minute of its artistic deceits! [Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom Streer] February 4-22, 2015; inisnuatheatre.org.