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'Different Shades of Hugh' Looks Pretty and Moves Nicely, But the Drama Falls Short

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Beat-perfect pacing and a stellar production design team can't save Clete Keith's "The Different Shades of Hugh," now receiving its world premiere production at the usually excellent Road Theatre Company's impressive new performance space in North Hollywood. Company co-artistic director Sam Anderson and production designer Adam Flemming create an optimal framework for this portrait of the artist as a young man off his meds and surrounded by small plastic water bottles. But Keith's rigidly schematic plot and a competent but mostly unexciting cast reduce his characters to plot drivers rather than vibrant dramatic engineers in their own right.

Hugh is a painter whose work these days everyone, very much including Hugh himself, recognizes isn't any good. Still, his one-time fiancee, Diane, gamely, if uselessly, pitches in to try and help attract an audience for his latest pieces. The only people who visit the apartment/studio where these new paintings are on display, though, are the caricaturishly smarmy art dealer (also sometimes referred to, inconsistently, as a critic) Michael and his comely assistant Maris from the high-end gallery across the street, followed by a mysterious pair of old-world art coaches resolved to help Hugh realize his great latent talent.

Flemming has created a wonderfully detailed "downtown" artist's studio loft in an unidentified city, with a large back window that doubles as a psychologically evocative inter-scene projection area. There's also an incredible effect in the second act when one of Hugh's portraits appears literally to paint itself. Lighting and sound designers Jeremy Pivnick and David B. Marling enhance these atmospherics and neatly blur the distinction between events inside and outside Hugh's fevered imaginings.

The big drawback here is that once Hugh's back story and a few other plot twists are revealed, the play's dramatic argument devolves into a wan tug of war over the artist's fate between two simply annoying characters whose respective urgings are accompanied by no insight, and never manage to develop, beyond their own initial preconceptions. Hugh the artist seems to have little interest in the question himself, and Maris, the gratuitous love interest, isn't any help, either. I could sum up the whole point in a sentence here, but that would be a spoiler.

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The best moments come in the first act when Hugh is visited in his studio by the stranger Paul, in a sprightly performance by Tom Musgrave, who claims to understand why Hugh has been unable to deliver on his artistic promise and offers to retrain him until he is flourishing once again. For the most part, though, the world contained in this play is only a two-dimensional canvas.

The Different Shades of Hugh plays Friday and Saturday nights at 8 and Sundays at 2 through March 15 at the Road on Magnolia in North Hollywood. Tickets available online for $38 ($19.50 for students); $21.50; and $21.