In 1934, a painting instructor in Newcastle, England, began an art appreciation class for a group of local coal miners. Rather than show slides of far-away masterpieces, Robert Lyon decided to nudge the miners into creating art themselves — the resulting exhibitions of their paintings became something of a phenom in England in the late ’30s, and the group’s reputation in art circles has long outlived the area’s mines (which have all since closed).
This is the sort of unlikely true story that’s become the stuff of Oscar-baiting indie movies and middlebrow theater productions. The Pitmen Painters, which opened on Broadway after a successful run in London, plays rather like a cross between last season’s Tony-winning hit Red and Billy Elliot. In fact, playwright Lee Hall was the author of Billy Elliot and clearly has a feel for the landscape, language, and culture of Northumberland, England’s coal country.
The show is tautly directed by Max Roberts. There’s a particularly stirring sequence at the end of the first act that re-creates the miners’ first trip to London. The five working-class men describe the works they see in the Tate Gallery, inching closer and closer as they excitedly talk over each other. By the end of the scene, they stand at the edge of the stage, which has fallen into near blackness, and stare out into bright headlights, looking vulnerable but energized by the works they’ve just seen.
The trouble is that the rest of the play doesn’t live up to that moment, and none of the five miners Hall introduces really registers as a flesh-and-blood character. Ian Kelly is properly posh-seeming as Lyon, but the miners merely offer a mix of representative types: the by-the-book union rep, his unemployed nephew, the knee-jerk socialist, the earnest one with real talent, and the comic foil. There is a lot of high-minded talk throughout the play — is art an elitist pursuit or truly for the masses? — but it yields little in terms of dramatic tension or surprise. And for such a fundamentally didactic show, the takeaway seems rather simplistic. It’s like a paint-by-numbers exercise in extolling the virtues of art. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)