'Impressionism'

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It doesn't take an art history major to predict that "Impressionism," the new Broadway play starring Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, is going to use that groundbreaking style of painting as a metaphor for life. Michael Jacobs' play can be said to resemble impressionist works as well: The closer you examine it, the less moving it becomes.

Still, this gentle comedy-drama about the relationship between a brittle New York art gallery owner and her mild-mannered employee has its charms, which are accentuated by the winning presence of its lead performers, who have been absent from the Broadway stage far too long.

In its early scenes, it appears as if the evening will be a slog. First we are introduced to Katherine (Allen) and Thomas (Irons), who engage in lengthy debates about subjects like the relative benefits of coffee cakes versus muffins when not showing various masterworks to such potential customers as a wealthy older matron (Marsha Mason) and a Modigliani-craving businessman (Michael T. Weiss).

The action then confusingly and tiresomely shifts between scenes set in the gallery and flashbacks, including Katherine at age 6 interacting with her soon-to-be divorced parents (played by Irons and Allen), Katherine at 30 posing nude for a womanizing artist (Irons) and Thomas during a recent trip to Africa, where he was shooting photographs of an elderly fisherman (Andre De Shields) for National Geographic.

The play is not helped by its diffuseness — it has been shortened considerably since its early previews — or by its tonal shifts between sitcom-style comedy and sensitive drama. And lengthy explications about the famous paintings projected on scrims slow the pacing considerably.

But the final scene, when the main characters let down their emotional guard and finally find a way to connect, is quite moving, making one nearly forgive the many missteps along the way.

The two stars, who are aging like fine wine, make middle-aged love seem very sexy indeed. Allen is as luminous onstage today as she was decades ago in "The Heidi Chronicles," and Irons offers a wily, understated comic turn that should have the matinee ladies quivering.

Director Jack O'Brien has staged this problematic work about as skillfully as one could expect, and the rest of the cast, especially Mason and the scene-stealing De Shields, offers solid comic support. (partialdiff)
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