Yasmina Reza's Art begins and ends with an all-white painting. Or an empty canvas, depending on how you look at it. Serge, a wealthy dermatologist, has just invested 200,000 francs (about $40,000) in the painting, which features diagonal white lines on a white background. His friend, Marc, is appalled at Serge's gullibility and extravagance. The painting is ridiculous, a bad joke, Marc feels, and what does it say about Serge -- whom he thought he knew and understood -- that he fell for it? The two men argue bitterly, and then Marc is off to Yvan's apartment to discuss the matter with him.
You think at first that this will be a play about modern art -- and if so, isn't it a bit dated? Twenty years ago, television shows were parodying artistic pretensions, concocting plots about effete and arrogant artists who foisted off nonsensical work on society and threw tantrums when faced with rejection. It's true that there's a thread running through this play that deals with how we evaluate art. Some work may be pure chicanery, the script seems to say, but ultimately, all art is a collaboration between artist and viewer. We play an active role in making a work of art what it is, and part of the function of a painting or a piece of music is to help us discover harmony, form and feeling within ourselves. So it isn't entirely ridiculous when Serge says he finds resonance, degrees of white, even other colors in his newly acquired treasure, or when Yvan insists, "I find these colors touching." But Marc's response is even more convincing: "There are no colors."
The play is really more about friendship than art, however. Serge's canvas becomes the blank background against which the men's neuroses, insecurities, affectations and irritations are highlighted. The purchase of the painting empowers Serge and jolts Marc out of his accustomed way of seeing his friend, signaling a basic change in their relationship. Yvan, who is needy and childish, less successful in the world than Serge and Marc, is constantly trying to reconcile his friends. Inevitably, their anger turns on him.
For almost all of us, our friends provide a kind of mirror -- a model of how to behave or how not to behave, a reflection of our own image in the world. But if those friends aren't who we thought they were, what happens to our ideas about ourselves?
And the doubt and confusion multiply. Yvan is about to marry, and so far, his friends have kept their low opinion of his fiancée from him. Now it spills out. So does Serge's dislike of Marc's love, Paula. He can tell that she's life-denying, he says, because of her manner of waving off cigarette smoke.
The men are full of themselves, though not in the least self-aware. They banter about deconstruction, toss off such names as Seneca and Valery, and say things like "Objects...infuriate me" and "Could we try to steer clear of pathos?" The dialogue is smart and wry. It circles; it traps itself in little boxes; it's punctuated by spurts of wit and moments of actual insight.
The Nomad Theatre production, directed by Peter Anthony, features three very good performances. Robert Reid is a disarming, apparently friendly and open Serge; you're mildly surprised when he sticks to his guns in the face of Marc's attack. Marc is outwardly the most confident of the men, but he's also highly insecure, and Steven P. Sickles gives due and interesting weight to every facet of his character. Whether sucking on a lollipop or carefully refolding a letter into tiny squares before beginning to read, Stetson Weddle brings Yvan to cuddly, manipulative life.
The set, also designed by Anthony, is tilted, done in stylized white on white, with occasional columns of gray. It serves as the apartments of all three characters and works well, though I'm not sure the swirl of white plywood circling the playing area adds anything. The evening's only major miscalculation is the sound. The performance is preceded by formless new-agey music and a portentous voice speaking a garble of words like "art," "society in denial," "relevant," "refusing tradition." The voice is really irritating, and it sets us up for something more abstract and pretentious than the light, clever comedy we're about to witness. At the play's end, each of the actors gives a closing monologue, and the words are underlined by uplifting music -- which by the end becomes loud enough to drown them out -- when they should be framed by a silence as enigmatic as Serge's painting.
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