Beauty, Bakelite, and a dead Russian’s diary are all the subjects of three quasi-interesting theatrical productions now onstage in the area. I sat through them all and only fell asleep at one: THE BAKELITE MASTERPIECE at NEW REP THEATRE through April 8.

It’s based on the true story of a masterpiece famously forged and laminated with plastic (Bakelite!) which the forger had to prove was a REAL fake. Benjamin Evett co-stars as Han van Meegeren who forged a Vermeer which eventually made its way into the hands of Nazi Hermann Goring. Van Meegeren was arrested and held captive by art historian turned jailer Geert Piller played by Laura LaTreille.  LaTreille and Evett act up a storm, maybe even a hurricane, trying to pump life into what is basically a very long conversation about what constitutes art. Yes, that’s interesting– but not here. No matter that van Meegeren is required to prove the truth of his story by painting an actual fake in his jail cell. No matter the evocative set, Jim Petosa’s direction, or the intensity of the acting– the playwright sapped the life out of this true story, which wasn’t easy. For an INFINITELY more compelling take on the forging of a VERMEER, read my review of a truly mind-blowing film helmed by magicians Penn & Teller: TIM’S VERMEER. Your head might explode.

Then there’s Mikhail Bulgakov’s A DEAD MAN’S DIARY: A THEATRICAL NOVEL written and directed by Igor Golyak and presented by Needham’s Arlekin Players in Russian with English translation! This was fascinating. Brilliantly staged and choreographed, the acting ensemble is lead by the charismatically expressive David Gamarnik as a suicidal novelist trying to make his way through the labyrinthine conventions of style and censorship that threaten to overwhelm him physically and creatively.

The work based on Bulgakov’s barbed valentine to Stanislavsky and the beginnings of the Moscow Art Theatre is mysteriously and exuberantly envisioned. The audience sits all around the four sided perimeter of the stage peering through cutout windows at the action within, while listening on headsets (if needed) to the English translation delivered by Artistic Director Igor Golyak. This becomes confusing whenever there are several different characters onstage, and sometimes it seems like a cast of thousands. The play is also overlong–every scene could have been shortened by half, with twice as much satirical impact. That said, we are wrapped up in a visually stunning, surrealistic dreamscape of demented swan ballerinas, off kilter actors, and aesthetically inclined bureaucrats. “A Dead man’s Diary” is worth seeing for its vibrance and staging. Onstage at the Emerson Paramount Center’s Black Box Theatre thru April 1.

I finally saw GUARDS at the TAJ by Rajiv Joseph presented by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square-– and so glad I did, frustrating as it was. Two guards stand watch in 1648 on the eve of the opening of the Taj Mahal. What a set up! They have been friends since childhood and their bond is immediately apparent at the utterance of the first, prescient words: “Wrong hand!” says Humayun (Jacob Athyal) to Babur (Harsh J. Gagoomal) who is late for duty and is holding his sword over the wrong shoulder. The audience cracked up. I was already thinking I wanted to have drinks with them. They are at first hilarious and later touching as we watch them deal with the grizzly official task about to be thrust upon them by the Emperor at the completion of this architectural monument to beauty and his beloved late wife.

The performances held me, the play did not. It falls far short of truly exploring the conundrum of public duty vs. individual integrity, friendship, and beauty. The play’s characters are not fully realized and this results in their making some illogical arguments around beauty that undercut the deeper significance of what has occurred. How is it that Bubar’s prodigious imagination is somehow stumped by imagining the power of future generations? It isn’t aesthetics that is at stake here, but rather one’s humanity as a result of the corrosive impact of sacrificing one’s individual values to those of a corrupt state.  Their conversations around who is most guilty are lame sidetracks that go nowhere, rather than toward an urgent examination of personal responsibility in the face of oppression. Their friendship never seems truly threatened– and it should be if we are to be compelled by what they’ve just gone through. There is a much better play in this premise somewhere, and these are the characters/actors who could make it work. Onstage through April 1 at Central Square.