When intermission arrived during opening night of From Darkness last Saturday at Nimbus Theatre, I glanced at my watch and wondered how I was going to make it for another hour of the show. The time had crawled by during a string of slowly paced scenes that featured clumsy writing and often disinterested acting.
All of that changed when the lights went down for Act Two. The plot was sharper. The scenes had bite and energy, and even the acting picked up a notch. I don't know if it was enough to save the show, but it certainly showed that Josh Cragun's script about art forgery and modern art during the middle of 20th-century America has potential.
The story centers on Stanley Mansfield, a young man who runs against the wishes of his business-leaning family to become a painter. He finds success early on, but as modern art turns to the abstract, the representational painter finds himself out of fashion and out of luck.
He eventually turns to forgery, which is topped off by an impressive piece of work: a fake version of Caravaggio's The Denial of St. Peter. One of Cragun's conceits is that the image hanging at the Met in New York is actually Mansfield's work, not that of the 17th-century master.
It's the journey to get to that point that trips up From Darkness. Mansfield's story moves slowly, with several scenes that could be trimmed or excised completely. A lengthy bit involving his parents' disapproval adds nothing to the character that we don't see elsewhere, and only manages to slow the action down.
The same goes for the second main plotline, which follows a modern-day curator's attempts to discover why a fake is hanging in the Met. While it makes some sense to provide context, the character, Teresa Mitner, does little more than move the plot along. The attempts to provide depth fall flat, which isn't helped by Cynthia Hornbeck's uneven and unengaged performance.
These two strands crawl along during Act One. The second act arrives like a completely fresh piece, with energy and a sense of play missing from the first half. Here, we get a sense of the thriving art scene in New York during the 1950s and '60s. Not only a sense, but we see it through the bitter lens of Mansfield's memories. From Jackson Pollack to Andy Warhol, the artists are found wanting by the increasingly bitter painter.
Nicholas Nelson (young) and Art Peden (old) bring out these emotions in Stanley. There is the rage of observing Warhol's pop art to the glee that comes in retelling the tale of his daring midnight run to the Met when he made the switch of the paintings.
Is it too little, too late? I'm not sure. Act One of From Darkness is an ordeal. It wasn't helped by plenty of opening night jitters that led to dropped lines and slow scene changes that interrupted the action's flow. Those problems were still there in Act Two, but the higher quality and energy of the material pushed that from the mind.
IF YOU GO:
From Darkness Through June 14 Nimbus Theatre 1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis $10-$18 For tickets and more information, call 612-548-1380 or visit online.