The Credeaux Canvas

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 3

James Wright and Felix Johnson. Photo: supplied

James Wright and Felix Johnson. Photo: supplied

In his program notes, Les Solomon recalls producing the Australian premiere of Keith Bunin’s 2001 play The Credeaux Canvas at the Stables Theatre 14 years ago, having seen it not long before in New York.

Apparently the production (which I didn’t see) was a huge hit, breaking box office records. That doubtless emboldened him to produce the play again now, this time with Bryce Hallett, though there seems no compelling reason to do so.

The play has an entertaining enough plot – though it does rather peter out towards the end. But it doesn’t have the emotional depth for its characters and themes to make a terribly strong impact.

Set in a grotty attic apartment on New York’s Eastside, the play focuses on three struggling young people.

Winston (James Wright) is an artist finishing his MA. He is clearly passionate about art – and about obscure French artist Jean-Paul Credeaux, in particular – though whether he has what it takes to become a significant artist himself is questionable. At this point anyway, his work is derivative, with “come back in five years” the common response from those in the know.

Winston shares the flat with Jamie (Felix Johnson), who has fallen foul of his well-off art dealer father and is working in real estate, which he hates. Also there on a regular basis is Amelia, Jamie’s girlfriend (Emilie Cocquerel), who has come to New York with dreams of being a singer but who finds herself waiting tables and performing at ever more crummy, far-flung venues.

Jamie has just attended the reading of his father’s will and is livid to learn he has been left nothing. On the way home, however, he bumped into Tess (Carmen Duncan), a very wealthy art collector, who was a client of his father’s and a scam suggested itself to him.

Jamie has told Tess that his father left him a lost Credeaux from the artist’s moonlit nude series. Winston will paint a fake work in the style of Credeaux with Amelia as his subject. Tess, who he disses as having more money than art sense, will be taken in and pay them a fortune.

Winston and Amelia eventually agree. To put Amelia at her ease, Winston disrobes as well, leading to a sexual triangle. (There is also a brief hint that Winston may be attracted to Jamie.) What unfolds will sorely test all of them.

James Wright, Felix Johnson and Emilie Cocquerel. Photo: supplied

James Wright, Felix Johnson and Emilie Cocquerel. Photo: supplied

Bunin doubtless means to explore the nature of fraud and fakery as it relates to the characters as well as the canvas in question. Do any of them have the talent to achieve their dreams? Are they deluding themselves? What is the true nature of the various relationships between them? But though the dialogue zips along, there isn’t enough in the writing to convincingly examine this in any depth and the production doesn’t bring the kind of nuance that might expand on it and further illuminate the subtext.

It should be noted that there were setbacks during rehearsals. Director Ross McGregor (who directed Solomon’s earlier production) came in at fairly late notice, as did Duncan.

Performances aside, some of the play is overwritten, particularly the swathes of talk about art (which comes across mainly as the writer showing that he knows what he’s talking about).

There’s a terrific design from Emma Vine and strong moments from all the performers – Cocquerel is particularly impressive – but overall not enough subtext, nuance and emotional depth for the play to really fire.