"If youth knew, if age could," Henri Estienne wrote in the 16th century, and that was without having met Jamie (Matt Skaja) and his two roommates: Amelia (Kimberly-Rose) and Winston (Johnny Clark). Living in appropriate squalor in Greenwich Village, the three have attached themselves to their ambitions with youthful fervor. Winston is an undiscovered painter, working at the library by day. Amelia is a singer manqué, waiting tables to make ends meet. Jamie is the most confused of the three; having survived one suicide attempt, he is committed to his friends' commitment. The tendrils of these unformed psyches are entwined around one another so incestuously that it's hard for each to decide where one ends and the other begins.
When Jamie's estranged father dies and leaves Jamie only an inheritance of indifference and hate, a revenge plan is set in play that involves Winston painting a canvas in the style of an as-yet-unrecognized dead artist, Jean-Paul Credeaux, using Amelia as his model. Through his dead father's contact with a wealthy collector, Tess (Marilyn McIntyre), Jamie plans to pass off the resultant painting as a long-lost Credeaux, thus saving all their dreams and providing the wherewithal for them to be fulfilled without the annoying imperative of menial labor.
Had Estienne been standing by, he might have warned Jamie not to throw Winston and Amelia together in the trustful intimacy required of an artist and his nude model. When Winston strips to make his model more comfortable, the two find themselves as emotionally naked as they are physically. This, as one might imagine, leads to complications that inexorably turn this comedy into a drama, from which there is no reasonable exit.
Clark stunningly portrays the verbally challenged Winston (except when he lets loose a passionate waterfall of manic art jabber), who is himself a complex portrait both physically and psychologically. Rose's Amelia is beautiful to behold and delightfully spry in the verbal clinches that her model's nudity, and some helpful bourbon, encourage. The long nude scene is so deliciously played that there's no embarrassment or titillation, but it is clear the connection between artist and model is beyond even the intimacy of sex. Skaja, with the most difficult role, manages to be both vengeful and pathetic in his self-obsessed cupidity. McIntyre steers away from the obvious, bringing impeccable control to the role of the pretentious art babbler who turns out to be more insightful, shrewd, and vulnerable than ridiculous.
Playwright Keith Bunin's language is refreshingly new, charming, funny, and keenly insightful, making the complexity of the plot speak loudly in its own defense. Director Paul Nicolai Stein lets the passion of Bunin's articulate work express itself with economy and dignity on John Williams' squalidly realistic East Village flat, a suitably messy ambience for disaffected youth, coolly lit by the moonlight of lighting designer Erin M. Hearne.
"The Credeaux Canvas," presented by VS Theatre Company and Victory Theatre Center Productions at the Victory Theatre Center, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Mar. 27-Apr. 24. $20. (818) 426-6053.