The last — if not, thankfully, lasting — impression left by Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons on Broadway, prior to their Impressionism at the Schoenfeld Theatre, was as Tony winners.
Both went west to mine the movies. Irons struck Oscar gold with 1990's "Reversal of Fortune," reteaming with his Real Thing co-star Glenn Close to play Claus and Sunny von Bulow; Allen has been chipping away at the award — with three nominations so far (as Pat Nixon in "Nixon," an accused Salem witch in "The Crucible" and a nominated U.S. veep in "The Contender"). Nobody expected them back on the Broadway boards.
But here they are, surprising even themselves. "The play," they say, made them do it — a wise and witty, moving and mature speculation on love and art by TV writer and producer Michael Jacobs. For both of them, it was love at first read. The newness of it all is what got Irons' vote — "I suppose because I come from a rich heritage of theatre. There are so many classic plays to do, but because I work in film, it's always a new story. I know the thrill — and the risk — of seeing if something flies. A new play contains the same excitement for me as a film: Will it work or won't it? In London, over the past two or three years, I've done two new plays, and I think the fact that they were new plays is really what attracted me to them."
Irons has maintained his stage career in England. "My home is in Ireland or in England. If I'm going to come away for six months, I'm giving up a lot, so, although I love being in New York, it has to be for really worthwhile work."
Jacobs' play obviously met that lofty criterion, but Irons is hard-pressed to say how or why: "It's not for nothing it's called Impressionism. When you stand up close to an impressionist painting, what you see are dots or fairly vulgar brush strokes. Not till you stand away do you really see it. I think it is very much a company show, and we all are some of those dots which go to make up the picture when we stand back."
O'Brien and Allen have worked together only once — a good 20 years ago on "All My Sons" for PBS — but he had no qualms about phoning her up one day last June with "I have this play, darling. You must absolutely just do it. I'm bringing it over in 15 minutes."
"I had no intention of doing a play," admits Allen, who, in fact, hasn't in 19 years (since she was the original Heidi in The Heidi Chronicles). "The next day, I read it and was moved by it — incredibly moved by it — and I thought, 'I can't not do this play.'
"It's very adult, about two people of a certain age who've lived a lot of life, been damaged but found a way to be together, given what they've been through and how they navigate the world: They take time to get to know each other before jumping."
The play is set in a small art gallery owned by Allen's character, and Irons is a war-weary photojournalist who has come to New York to hide and heal. The two meet.
"The beautiful thing about this love story," she says, "is how the art metaphors, how art — impressionism, in particular — connects and relates to how people interact.
"At one point, Jeremy and I have a little discussion about what we think life is — realism or impressionism — and it's in reference to what these paintings do. The paintings are a metaphor for 'Do you think life is real, or is it just impressionistic?'" Allen opts for impressionistic.