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The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

Masterpiece Theatre: The Woman Who Amuses Herself

Chris Klimek, like you’ve never taken a lady home and had second thoughts about it.

You know the Mona Lisa, yeah? A lot of smart people think a big reason why the half-millennia-old Renaissance masterpiece remains instantly recognizable to you, you Big Mac-eating, CW-watching, New York Times-ignoring philistine, is because in 1911, somebody stole it.

This was, to put it mildly, news: France sealed its borders, the Louvre was closed for nine days, and Parisian detectives employed the far-out new crimefighting tool of fingerprinting to identify suspects. But this was no precision-timed, quip-happy heist executed by George Clooney and Brad Pitt and set to a David Holmes cocktail hour score. Vincenzo Perugia, the Italian laborer who eventually confessed to the crime, simply lifted it off the wall of the Louvre and carried it back to his apartment.

He knew the place and had ready access to it, having been hired to install a protective glass panel over the painting. (He later watched in disgust as a girl fixed her hair in the reflection of the pane, oblivious to the treasure beneath.) Only when Perugia met the director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery more than two years later to discuss selling it did the long arm of international law find him. At his trial, Perugia swore his sole motive was to return the painting to its native Italy, believing it (wrongly) to have been plundered by Napoleon.

Theatre Alliance follows up last month’s world premiere of Victor Lodato’s The Bread of Winter with a one-hander restaging of his 2002 The Woman Who Amuses Herself. The title is one translation of La Giaconda, the Italian moniker of the most famous art ever art-ed. And for as long as the narrative remains inside Perugia’s frayed psyche as he paces his attic hovel (a smart, simple set by Klyph Stanford) in the days and years following his grandest of larcenies, it remains a charming, mournful, sharply-observed whydunnit with a bravura performance by the versatile and convincing Nigel Reed at its center.

The stew thins, regrettably, when Lodato stirs in nine other characters of variable interest. Genuis prankster Marcel Duchamp, famously defacing a reproduction of the Mona to honor the hotness of Lisa’s caboose? Splendid! British reporter Larry Worthington Buckles, recounting the painting’s 1913 tour of Italy preceding its return to the Louvre? Funny! Perugia’s mom, ruminating on the epochal meat-grinder of World War I? Heartbreaking. New Jersey third-grader Kevin Lessler, talking about his Mona Lisa beach towel? Er, why?

It’s fun to watch Reed play a frustrated schoolmarm trying to imbue her students with some inkling of the painting’s enigmatic majesty, but the fact that we’ve all shown up is evidence enough of its generational reach. While the dexterity which Reed executes these character shifts is impressive, the problem remains that only Duchamp is as funny, and none are as tragic, as Perugia the Liberator. Cutting the grade-school scenes (with the possible exception of a creepy late-show evocation of one young student’s dream about the painting) and slimming this 105-minute one-actor an 80-minute one-act would likely yield a more substantial meditation on obsession, one worthy of the mysterious lady to which it pays tribute.

This review appears in slightly altered form in the May 21, 2009 Washington City Paper.