TimeLines Bakersfield Mist is a true story that turned a bad theater review

Right before Stephen Sachs’ Bakersfield Crap begins, a great art expert stands in an unemployed bartender’s trailer, telling her the news that the painting she bought at a thrift store isn’t the real Jackson, and Pollock hopes she is is. “That’s flat. Empty,” he says across the screen. “It has no charm.”

I know exactly what he means. There is a funny, interesting, true story at the heart of Sachs’ 2011 play which is now playing in a TimeLine Theater production on stage 773 in Belmont. But Sachs doesn’t say it and decides to paint us a flat, empty, alluring picture instead.

The real incident that inspired Bakersfield Mist goes like this: Several years ago, a retired truck driver named Teri Horton was looking for something to cheer up a depressed friend in California. She found a gag present: a large painting of nothing – all swirls, wipes, and drips, with no discernible theme – and paid five dollars for it. The friend hated the piece and there was no way she could get it through the door of her trailer, so Horton added it to a flea market. An art teacher came over, took one look, and said, according to Horton, “Maybe you have a Jackson Pollock painting here.”

Horton’s answer – “Who the hell is Jackson Pollock?” – became the title of a 2006 documentary (in deleted form) about their efforts to get the art world to agree that their used goods store was indeed an original work of the great action painters valued at tens of millions of dollars.

I’ve only seen the first nine minutes and 22 seconds of the documentary, but that’s enough to confirm it’s a Teri-versus-the-Snoots narrative. The main snoot is the late director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, on his way to declaring that Horton’s painting is not a Pollock.

Hoving then wrote an essay for Artnet, containing the main reasons for his explanation (including: “The thing is painted with acrylic paints. Pollock never used acrylic paints.”) And exposes conflicts of interest and possible inventions in connection with a crucial Horton partisan. Sachs might have come up with something richer and more subtle if he’d been willing to take the story this far and raise so many doubts himself. But it goes exactly in the opposite direction, outperforming the documentary by flattening the characters, sentimentalizing their conflict, and telegraphing everything.

His thinly fictionalized script embodies Horton as Maude Gutman, a die-hard, 50-year-old divorced woman with a bad mouth and a strong thirst for the product she’s been selling behind a bar. Hoving is incarnated as Lionel Percy, snoot par excellence, whose first gestures after recovering from an encounter with the neighbor’s dogs – “I’m having a seizure!” – (a) To deride in Maudes Redneck setting and (b) to showcase his many real businesses, including a position in Princeton, an editor in Connoisseur magazine and of course the role of director in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Maude serves small Viennese bread rolls with and without Velveeta. Lionel bases his negative assessment of the painting on a few fleeting minutes of inspection in which he never flips the picture and then never provides a forensic explanation, as Hoving was able to provide in his Artnet article. Sachs doesn’t care about texture. He likes schematics. He introduces Maude and Lionel as implausible, caricatured and not too unprofessional polar opposites in order to achieve a simple goal: to achieve the sympathetic breakthrough that we all know is coming. And I think he didn’t want to make the trip too difficult for himself.

Director Kevin Christopher Fox seems to have finished with Sachs’ program. His costume designer Christine Pascual put Mike Nussbaum’s Lionel in an ascot, for God’s sake. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set provides Janet Ulrich Brooks’ maude with all sorts of silly lump tchotchkes. Fox’s only misjudgment appears to have been failing to realize that Brooks and Nussbaum would treat their characters as humans under all circumstances – so that, for example, their prepackaged passages of truth-finding don’t come out as all of those prepackaged performance. This is a problem in a way: Bakersfield Mist could be funnier and more conveniently trivial if its two-person cast were more strictly consistent with the script’s clichés. On the other hand, Nussbaum and Brooks give us something to see when every other reason is gone.v

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