Tiny Nimbus Theatre bites off more than it can chew with From Darkness. The play offers an intriguing idea wrapped in a cluttered and ill-formed script with wildly divergent acting.
It begins with an intoxicating hook: What if The Denial of St. Peter, the Caravaggio painting hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is a fake? And what if visitors are flocking every day to the work of an obscure mid-century painter whose skills were passed over by the rise of modern art?
Josh Cragun's script moves along two different eras. In the 1930s, the aspiring artist Stanley Mansfield sets up shop in New York City. Seventy years later, Teresa Mitner is a curator at the Met.
While doing routine paperwork on the Caravaggio, she discovers troubling differences between the photograph taken when the work was acquired and the piece hanging on the wall. This leads her down a rabbit hole as she follows a thin trail back to the now elderly Mansfield.
But the production's troubles begin with Teresa's story. Apart from uncovering the mystery, she isn't very interesting. There are hints of a more complete person, but these are never developed. All we know is that she's committed to her job, wary of backstabbing within the Met, and a bit afraid of her frosty boss.
Actor Cynthia Hornbeck doesn't seem much more interested in her character than the audience, making her scenes lifeless and eternal. That's in sharp contrast to the pair of actors playing Stanley. Nicholas Nelson is the younger version, and Art Peden assumes the role of an older Stanley. By the end, the two have matched each other with a portrait of an artist turned bitter by changes in taste that rendered his style quaint.
Early on, Stanley rubs elbows with the likes of Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning. His skills push him to the forefront of the young group, but his obsession with representational art hurls him out of step with the art world. His fortunes fade, and the desperate painter discovers his talents are perfect for forgery.
When the two stories merge in Act Two, Cragun's script picks up considerably. The plot tightens and the characters come into focus as the older Stanley narrates the final steps. This includes a visit to Andy Warhol's factory, where art is — quite openly — copied and sold.
The Caravaggio scheme comes at the end of Stanley's bitter arc, and has enough daring and danger for a heist movie. Peden narrates while Nelson does the actual deed, taking us step-by-step through the process of replacing a signature work by a great artist with an expertly done replica.
It's one of the highlights that dot the second half. But it's not enough to compensate for the lack of focus in the first, preventing From Darkness from becoming a satisfying journey.
IF YOU GO:
From Darkness IF YOU GO: Through June 14 Nimbus Theatre 1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis $10-$18 For tickets and more information, call 612-548-1380.