The New World Stage PlayFactory production of Ann Marie Oliva’s new play, Alice Neel (8 p.m. May 21-24 at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC), uses incidents in the life of the American painter (1900-84) to explore some essential, if uncertain, intersections: between art and life, commerce and expression, passion and experience, achievement and renown. With it, the Charlotte playwright comes up against an old conundrum: Can the act of creation be made dramatic, or are we watching the proverbial paint dry?

Biography, whether printed or performed, is a risky proposal. No matter how rich — or entertaining — the project, the form itself ultimately dooms the work because, essentially, the biographer is making an attempt at knowing the unknowable. Few people are all that clear, accurate, or insightful about themselves or their own motives to sum up the events of their lives, and what they choose to ignore or edit out, or are simply unaware of, is beyond measure. A dispassionate witness may interpret from the known facts, but that too is filtered through the biographer’s own sensibilities and prejudices.

Events themselves don’t make a life. That approach is what makes most art ABOUT art so unsatisfying; the writer is usually left with a series of incidents strung together to form a sort of “highlights” version. (The recent film Frida comes to mind as a model.) It may, perhaps, be best to start with an imaginary artist and work one’s themes through the prism of fiction. The less that is known about a real person, the easier the task; the single great dramatic work centered on an artist, Sunday in the Park with George, isn’t really about Seurat but the very nature of art itself.

Because artists see the world more vividly, with greater intensity and focus, than the myopic rest of us, it’s difficult to present that vision to an audience with clarity. Alice Neel, like Frida Kahlo, painted her perceptions with an intensity and psychological depth that can stagger the viewer. It would take the stage equivalent of a Fellini to get inside that head.

Oliva centers Alice Neel at the time of Neel’s greatest personal adversity (roughly the 10 turbulent years between 1924 and 1934), which allows the playwright to dramatize some pretty insupportable events — the death of Neel’s and Carlos Enrique’s infant daughter; his subsequent abandonment of her and taking away of their second child; the subsequent breakdowns, suicide attempts, and institutionalization; the early quest for freedom and recognition; the liaison with John Rothschild; and the disastrous common-law marriage with the sailor who would ultimately destroy some 300 of her paintings.

It is as a portraitist — “a collector of souls” was Neel’s self-description, cribbed from Gogol — that the painter ultimately made her greatest contribution to modern art, a fact that may have contributed to her long obscurity during our last, paint-spattered century; “The abstractionists,” she said, “pushed all the other pushcarts off the streets.” (Her being a woman in a field that ignores her sex is more obviously at fault.) Alice Neel, by ironic contrast, represents not a concentration of vision so much as a kind of “speed-through” of the artist’s life — a series of light, fast incidents played out in brief vignettes, like entries in a biographical sketch. And, because Oliva concentrates on this era, her action must leap over the period of Neel’s greatest artistic accomplishment, during the last 24 years of her life. Nothing wrong with that in itself, except that its omission deprives the audience of a frame, a context, by which it can find meaning in those desperate years of struggle and psychic warfare.

Matters aren’t helped by Flynt Burton’s central performance. Whether the actor’s interpretation or that of the playwright (or even of Jerome Davis, the play’s director), the result is unfelt, even unfeeling. Burton plays Neel in two modes: strident and pretentious, all anger and no subtlety, or one-noted, and dead. Doing a dispassionate rumba with Carlos, she says she’s happy, in love, but she doesn’t look it. Similarly, when the sailor, Kenneth, picks her up playfully, she gives out a painfully forced bark of pleasure. This may, for all I know, be part of a character design so subtle it eluded me: Neel as emotional automaton.

The staging, which I assume is integral to Oliva’s play, exacerbates our sense of being cut out by having the characters talk at, seldom to, each other. They seldom make eye contact, and speak most of their dialogue out front. (Significantly, the longest look Neel exchanges with another precedes Kenneth’s slashing of her canvasses.) This may be a deliberate, Brechtian distancing device, or an attempt to isolate an artist on stage as she did in life, but it has a cooling effect on our involvement.

As Enriquez, Scott Pardue (who also designed the play’s spare, blank canvas laden set) plays his first, flirtatious, scenes with Alice in a manner less seductive than smarmy. He also speaks the word “marvelous” in a way that reminds the audience of Billy Crystal, but his performance grows in stature as the play progresses. John Honeycutt is a gentle, encouraging John Rothschild, but lacks true individuality. Mark Perry, on the other hand, gives the bright but jealous sailor Kenneth Doolittle an edge of almost subliminal danger even in his lighter moments that unostentatiously prepares us for his final act of unconscionable violence.

The play’s finest performance is that of Diane Gilboa as Neel’s well-intentioned but stifling Mother, and it is in her scenes with Alice that the production is most fully alive, and grounded. Beyond the issue of control, which is I think at the heart of the play, these sequences and this relationship nicely foreshadow those Neel has with men. Gilboa is alternately tender and tender, smug and self-satisfied, and she makes the most of the often splendid lines the playwright gives her, as when she warns Alice against Kenneth: “Bohemians have wives and mistresses, and cheat on both.”

The style of the play is often wonderfully apt, as when Kenneth plants his fist in Rothschild’s gut: he delivers the blow downstage as Rothschild doubles over in pain behind him. And Oliva’s dialogue contains kernels of wit and insight that bespeak a dramatist who can straddle the personal and the political (Kenneth: “Art ain’t essential — it should be left to the women.”) Some points are made a shade too clearly — the characters wear solid black except for Alice, who alone sports both color and vintage dress — and Neel’s active painting is rendered, curiously, by placing Burton at center with a brush in hand which, interestingly, she never actually uses.

Ann Marie Oliva’s sense of stagecraft, like her ear for the single phrase that distills a character (“Dreams,” Alice’s Mother warns her, “are dangerous things”) is remarkable, and Alice Neel will never bore you. For me, however, the performance was one of those nights when you feel as though you’ve stumbled onto someone’s private party; they don’t toss you out, but they don’t really invite you in either.

The New World Stage PlayFactory presents Alice Neel Wednesday-Saturday, May 21-24, at 8 p.m. at The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina. $12.50 ($10 advance tickets, students, and military personnel). 919/929-2787. [inactive 4/04].