Edmund Farraday will not sell out. He refuses. He's young, he's an artist, he has long hair, and he likes Rousseau. He is a free spirit, the kind of guy who would break ties with his daddy if daddy tried to make him go into the family business. He would probably like to join a commune or at least spend some time getting down with the American dream in a VW Bus, but he can't. It's 1765. Lacking the ability to turn on, tune in, and drop out like the beatifically dumb idealists who would follow in his spiritual footsteps, he has hauled ass to a barn on the outskirts of Boston to paint a portrait of a young Miss Westerly at the behest of her father.
Regrettably this involves selling out. The year 1765 is a queasy one in the Colonies — this is the year of the Stamp Act, two years before the Townshend Acts, eight years before the Boston Tea Party, and 10 years before the first shots of the Revolution. Tensions are rising. Mr. Westerly wants his daughter married off to her wealthy British betrothed as quickly as possible. To expedite the process, he wants to send the bridegroom a portrait of his daughter so awe-inspiringly sexy that he'll summon the Westerlys to England immediately. But Mr. Westerly knows what his future son-in-law likes in a lady, and his daughter doesn't have it. He tells Farraday to embellish the portrait. "My brush tells the truth!" Farraday cries touchingly.
It's difficult to pardon that kind of wet-behind-the-ears naiveté in anything but a comedy, and Likeness isn't a comedy. It's a drama, and a subtly terrifying one. But broad gestures like Farraday's starry-eye ejaculations (and there are many) collude to create an atmosphere of diffuse absurdity, which allows for a level of tactile complexity and delight not found in many regional productions — least of all in world premieres, which tend to suck. Likeness is a very long way from sucking. This is a minor masterwork.
Written by David Caudle. Directed by Ricky J. Martinez. With Sally Bondi, Matthew Leddy, Scott McKinsey, Bill Schwartz, Vanessa Thompson, and Tara Vodihn. Through October 28. New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables; 305-443-5909, www.new-theatre.org.
And it never leaves the barn, where Mr. Westerly has sent young Farraday to mix his paints. Mr. Westerly is an expansive gentleman, a patrician who would in another 10 years be called a "loyalist," genteel and subtly condescending to Farraday in the first minutes of the play. As inhabited by Bill Schwartz, Mr. Westerly hides a secret threat behind every one of his friendly gestures. Farraday doesn't get it at first; he has been summoned here because of his skill with a paintbrush, not because he's young and stupid enough to be Westerly's sap. He thinks they are somehow equals, even while Westerly circles him like a shark. Polite more out of habit than natural inclination, Westerly will drop the ruse whenever it seems pragmatic.
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The back-patting pretense of fraternity disappears the moment Miss Westerly shows up. She might not be her betrothed's type, but Vanessa Thompson's Miss Westerly is beautiful, even when she is wearing a British galleon on her head (and she is). She looks like a petit four, and she's about as communicative as one. Throughout the first act, her entire interface with the world beyond her be-galleoned head consists of a look of contemptuous vacancy and the occasional throat-clearing directed at her perpetual chaperone, Tara Vodihn's Miss Preston. In spite of the woman's immediate attendance to Miss Westerly's every whim, Vodihn's performance is an archetypal study in dignity. While Miss Westerly's hauteur is all icing, Miss Preston's is all iciness. She is the one to watch. Reserved and imperious as a house slave in Miss Preston's presence, she veritably breathes fire when the girl is away. There is more to this woman than anybody suspects at first, and the second act brings it out.
Likeness begins with a straightforward question — Should a struggling artist sometimes compromise his integrity to further his career? — and ends by colliding head-on with the eternal verities. In the first act, we laugh at a serving boy sporting an ill-timed erection (to my knowledge, the first time this problem has been posited in colonial times). In the second act, we are forced to consider the virtue of honor, the wisdom of pragmatism, the nature of beauty, the beauty of truth, the allure of servility, the commingled love and fascism of certain kinds of father-daughter relationships, and the ultimate dominion of women over their husbands. Playwright David Caudle has much to say about all of these things, and he has the talent to let his characters say all of it in their own voices.
That even goes for the long-silent Miss Westerly, who is neither the cipher she appeared to be in the first act nor the sad, warm creature we expect to crawl out of her shell in the second. Instead, by the time her portrait is complete, she is very simply a person, with a set of imperatives and desires that have nothing to do with anybody's expectations — not her father's, not her portraitist's, not ours. This is true of every character in Likeness, and that's what's so wonderful about it. Even Mr. Westerly's middle-age "niece" (who in fact is not his niece), Mrs. Mapes — an outsize caricature of high-class colonial sleaze brought to gorgeous, garish life by Sally Bondi — is so multifaceted we believe she has been living the part since birth. When she attributes her enduring good looks to "the youthful enthusiasm for which these parts are known," the little shimmy with which she accentuates the double entendre is so delicious it could justify the whole play. Later on, when we catch a glimpse of the soul under the shimmy, we're even more touched by her humanity than we were amused by her caricature.
The only less-complex portrait in Likeness is, ironically or not, that of the portraitist. Other characters must face epiphanies, crumble, and bare themselves; Farraday was bare from the beginning. That's the lovely thing about naiveté — it can't lie. Even when one of our favorite characters is hauled off to jail to await an unknown fate, Farraday keeps his eye on the art, and smiles when it's good. And as it always goes with mono-moralistic characters, we can't help but like him. As Farraday explains, "beauty is character," and "character" is what one gets from any assemblage of features that are "unexpected but pleasing." Farraday really would be happier in a hippie commune. But even tarted up in 18th-century clothes, Mr. and Miss Westerly, Miss Preston, and the rest are recognizably inhabitants of the real world — full of character, unexpected and pleasing as one could want. And they're beautiful for it.