|THE PITMEN PAINTERS|
Nobody pirouettes or performs any ballet steps in The Pitmen Painters, but the specter of Billy Elliot pervades this British import about a group of miners from northern England who become artists when their adult-ed class has them applying brush to canvas.
Both shows come from the same author, Englishman Lee Hall, who once again puts his working-class upbringing to use depicting characters whose worlds are enriched and exploded by the impact of the arts. Only this time the Tony winner's drawing from the nonfiction realm and not using the services of any musical collaborators. Inspired by a book about the men of the Ashington Group, amateur artists who earned establishment credibility in the '30s and '40s when their paintings were exhibited and sold, Hall's stimulating drama alternates between invigorating and pedestrian.
When they're showing their efforts to each other, developing their critical voices and learning to look at abstract creations, the play is a joyous celebration of the personal power of art. The second act pivots to social issues, including art as a means of expression for the working class, when the most talented of the bunch, Oliver (Christopher Connel), attracts a patron who offers him the chance to move to London and paint. (Just like Billy Elliot, he's torn between familial obligations and his own aspirations.)
Here, Hall hammers home his points with such force that they tear at the fabric of his fine play. Fortunately, he has a bright cast (imported from the Great Britain run), and they and director Max Roberts find depth in characters that at times seem to have be written with one prevailing characteristic in mind (i.e., the by-the-book disciplinarian, the political activist). But as one character points out, "We go to art to find out about ourselves." In that, Hall provides enough material for enrichment.
By Diane Snyder
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Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Brian Lonsdale, Lisa McGrillis, Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker, Phillippa Wilson
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036