Lantern Theater Company presents The Craftsman, by prize-winning local playwright Bruce Graham, through Dec. 10. This intriguing world premiere drama is based on a fascinating footnote plucked out of history: the story of a second-rate artist who was a first-rate forger, one Han van Meegeren and his Vermeers. One of the play’s central questions is who determines the worth of a work of art.
Sitting down to write this review, I first took a quick look at the New York Times Breaking News feed to find this astonishingly apropos notice: “Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi,’ considered either the most important old master work to be auctioned in a generation or a damaged painting hyped by savvy marketing, sold on Wednesday night for $450.3 million with fees, a record for any work of art sold at auction.”
This play covers many of the same issues. Vermeer, one of the revered 17th-century Dutch Masters, painted only a small number of pictures (Girl with a Pearl Earring is probably the best known), so when a new Vermeer is discovered in Holland soon after the end of World War Two, it causes major excitement in the art world. Vermeers are considered national treasures in Holland, so when it is discovered that Han van Meegeren has sold four Vermeers to the enemy during the Nazi occupation, he is arrested for treason as a collaborator. The only way he can avoid the death penalty is to prove the paintings are forgeries.
Revealing how — and why — van Meegeren proves his “innocence” would be to spoil one of the many pleasures of The Craftsman. Part courtroom drama, part psychological study of obsession, the play manages to include a sweeping discussion of important questions about art and artifice, lying and forgery, hatred and revenge, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Director M. Craig Getting manages to keep all these ideas bouncing through scene change after scene change.
As van Meegeren, Anthony Lawton persuades us that this vile, fanatical painter is both shrewd and pitiable — and, oddly, right. His opponent is the self-important art critic, Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolan, wonderfully pompous), a grudge incarnate. As the new head of the Dutch postwar government, Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes is superb) is a tormented former Resistance officer with too much power. The prosecuting lawyer (the fine Dan Hodge) is a Jew with too much honor to compromise a case, even when it would be to his advantage. Mary Lee Bednarek as van Meegeren’s clueless wife, and Brian McCann (outstanding in several small roles) round out this tip-top cast.
Graham has given us not only a juicy slice of history, but also plenty of relevance to chew on as we contemplate the world, where fame seems based on popularity, not value, where “revenge has become a spectator sport,” and where fake has become the new normal.
The Craftsman. Through Dec. 10 at the Lantern Theater Company. Tickets: $26-43. Information: 215-829-0395, lanterntheater.org.