WATERTOWN — “Why struggle in vain to realize your own genius when you can have someone else’s?’’
That glib credo — a blend of opportunism, cynicism, and maybe a rueful realism — is enunciated in “The Bakelite Masterpiece’’ by an art forger named Han van Meegeren, explaining how he discovered he “could be, in my lack of authenticity, a great artist.’’
Han’s musings are far from idle. His life hangs in the balance as he is interrogated in a prison cell by a woman wearing a military uniform and an implacable expression.
Kate Cayley’s smart and twisty two-hander, inspired by a true story and directed by Jim Petosa at New Repertory Theatre, stars two skilled actors known for bringing different kinds of intensity to their performances: Benjamin Evett and Laura Latreille.
Evett — a frequent presence on New Rep’s stage in productions like “Amadeus,’’ “Good,’’ Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass,’’ “Cherry Docs,’’ Sondheim’s “Assassins,’’ and numerous others — excels at playing men on the edge and is at his most compelling when he opens it up to full throttle. Latreille, who was part of the splendid New Rep ensemble two years ago in Richard Nelson’s “Regular Singing,’’ tends toward an inward style that often suggests her characters know, or suspect, more than they’re saying.
Their pairing ensures that currents of tension flow throughout the cerebral game of feint-and-parry that is “Bakelite Masterpiece,’’ which unfolds on a set — designed by the inexhaustible Cristina Todesco, who seems to create the scenery for half the shows in town — that consists of several towering grids bedecked with empty painting frames.
It is Amsterdam in 1946, after the end of World War II, a time of reckoning for Dutch citizens who collaborated with the Germans during the occupation — and a time to take stock of the Nazi appropriation of art.
Geert Piller (Latreille), an art historian who was a member of the resistance and now heads a commission to investigate appropriated art, is accusing the disheveled-looking Han of being one of those collaborators; specifically, of selling a rediscovered Vermeer masterpiece to none other than Hermann Goering, whom Han hosted at a dinner party. (Geert was present when Han unveiled the supposed painting by Vermeer, and he will return more than once to the question of why she wept at that moment).
Facing the prospect of being either shot or hanged, Han offers an intriguing — and, to Geert, implausible — defense: That what he sold to Goering was not a Vermeer but a forgery, brilliantly executed by Han himself. He is a “perfect fraud,’’ not a traitor. At a time when the nation is at risk of tearing itself to pieces over who did what during the German occupation, Han spells it out to Geert: “You shot some Nazis but I made them into fools. And they can be public fools. For the crowd to laugh at. I am the hero who pulled the chair out from under Hermann Goering. Think about those people, laughing. Their laughter is serious, it’s desperate, they laugh to ward off despair. You’ll need that.’’
Geert isn’t buying. “You couldn’t paint a Vermeer to save your life,’’ she tells Han. So he challenges her to let him do just that. Allow him, he says, to prove his case by painting a subject of her choice in the style of Vermeer. She grudgingly consents. Three guesses which subject she chooses?
Director Petosa deftly builds an aura of suspense while not losing sight of the ideas woven through “The Bakelite Masterpiece.’’ Those ideas touch on matters of fame, obscurity, immortality, and honor; on the question of art as an emblem of nationhood and a means of individual survival; and about what is authentic and what is counterfeit, not just as regards painting but also the stories we tell ourselves.
THE BAKELITE MASTERPIECE
Play by Kate Cayley. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At MainStage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through April 8. Tickets $37-$67, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin