Janet Ulrich Brooks and Mike Nussbaum Credit: Lara Goetsch

Near the beginning of Stephen Sachs‘s Bakersfield Mist, a big-time art expert stands in the trailer home belonging to an out-of-work bartender and breaks the news to her that the painting she bought at a thrift store isn’t the genuine Jackson Pollock she hopes it is. “This is shallow. Empty,” he says of the canvas. “It has no allure.”

I know exactly what he means. There’s a funny, interesting, true story at the heart of Sachs’s 2011 play, running now in a TimeLine Theatre production at Stage 773 on Belmont. But Sachs doesn’t tell it, choosing to paint us a shallow, empty, allure-challenged picture instead.

The real incident that inspired Bakersfield Mist goes like this: Some years back, in California, a retired long-haul trucker named Teri Horton went looking for something to cheer up a depressed friend. She found a gag present: a big painting of nothing—all squiggles, swipes, and drips, with no apparent subject—and paid five bucks for it. The friend hated the piece, and couldn’t get it through the door of her trailer in any case, so Horton added it to a garage sale. An art teacher happened by, took a look, and, according to Horton, told her, “You might have a Jackson Pollock painting here.”

Horton’s response—”Who the fuck is Jackson Pollock?”—became (in expurgated form) the title of a 2006 documentary about her efforts to get the art world to agree that her thrift-store bargain was indeed an original work by the great action painter, worth many tens of millions of dollars.

I’ve seen only the first nine minutes and 22 seconds of the documentary, but that’s enough to confirm that it’s framed as a Teri-versus-the-snoots narrative, the primary snoot being the late Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving, who’s shown discussing his “connoisseurship”—and making lots of geeky moves—on his way to declaring that Horton’s painting is no Pollock.

Hoving subsequently wrote an essay for Artnet that gives substantial reasons for his declaration (among them: “The thing is painted with acrylics. Pollock never used acrylics.”) and exposes conflicts of interest and possible fabrications connected with a crucial Horton partisan. Sachs might’ve come up with something richer and more subtle if he’d been willing to take the story even that far, create even that much doubt. But he goes in precisely the opposite direction, outdoing the documentary in flattening out the characters, sentimentalizing their conflict, and telegraphing, well, everything.

His thinly fictionalized script embodies Horton as Maude Gutman, a hard-bitten, 50ish divorcee with a foul mouth and a powerful thirst for the product she used to dispense from 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!”—are to (a) sneer at Maude’s redneck surroundings and (b) present his many bona fides, which include a post at Princeton, an editorship at Connoisseur magazine, and, of course, the director’s job of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Maude serves little wiener rolls, with and without Velveeta. Lionel bases his negative assessment of the painting on a cursory few minutes of inspection, during which he never so much as turns the picture over and after which he never offers a forensic explanation of the sort that Hoving was able to provide in his Artnet article. Sachs isn’t interested in texture. He’s into schematics. He introduces Maude and Lionel as implausible, cartoonish, not to say unprofessional polar opposites in order to achieve a simple objective: arriving at the sympathetic breakthrough we all know is coming. And I guess he didn’t want to make the trip too hard on himself.

Director Kevin Christopher Fox seems to have gotten with Sachs’s program. His costume designer, Christine Pascual, put Mike Nussbaum‘s Lionel in an ascot, for god’s sake. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set supplies Janet Ulrich Brooks‘s Maude with all manner of silly lumpen tchotchkes. Fox’s one miscalculation seems to have been a failure to realize that, whatever the circumstances, Brooks and Nussbaum would treat their characters as human beings—so that, for instance, their prefab passages of truth telling don’t come off as all that prefab in performance. This is a problem, in a way: Bakersfield Mist might be funnier and more comfortably trivial if its two-member cast would play more strictly to the script’s cliches. On the other hand, Nussbaum and Brooks give us something to watch when every other reason is gone.  v