Like "Billy Elliot," which is set against the backdrop of a bitter miners strike in the mid-1980s, politics is never far away in "The Pitmen Painters." The miners here dream of a socialist utopia and the play ends with the government's nationalization of the coal industry in 1947, a euphoric moment for the miners but one we learn will dissolve into disillusionment.
The personal journey of one of the men, played terrifically by Connel, is particularly poignant and told without sentimentality. He is the most talented and self-aware of the group and is offered a real artist's career - and a way out of the mines - by a wealthy patron (Phillippa Wilson), whose motives grow cloudy. His wrenching decision involves weighing class, honor, independence and fear. The art professor is also not entirely altruistic; he is happy to leverage his celebrated artists for a better job.
The cast has been with the production since it premiered in England 2007 and it shows. They exude an easy comfort on stage, their dialogue and movements timed with military precision. It could have been a temptation to play these so-called unsophisticated men like buffoons; they have not, and each character's personality shines through.
Gary McCann, the scenic designer, has added an ingenious way for theatergoers at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to see the paintings under discussion: Each work is projected onto three roll-down overhead screens. They light up the darkness with life.
The rest of the set, a stark space with folding wooden seats, resembles a gloomy basement at a community college and it hardly changes during the production, which is composed of a series of small vignettes. Sound designer Martin Hodgson fills the time between the scene changes with the ferocious sounds of heavy machinery - drilling, drilling, drilling.
That's the only real visceral feeling we get of the stakes at hand. The miners, who appear on stage always dressed in suits, only briefly speak of the dank world underground and the physical dangers they daily face. Their exploitation does not always hit us, making their desire for political change - or a life in the leisurely pursuit of making art - not as urgent as it must have been.
"The Pitmen Painters" comes to New York after a rapturous reception in England and high expectations here because of its playwright. It may not be "Billy Elliot," but, in it's own way, it dances.