Art is more about friendship than art

Yasmina Reza's cool, witty, much-celebrated and much-performed play is ostensibly about art, but it's more about friendship. At the center of the action in Art is an all-white painting, purchased by Serge, a dermatologist, for a huge sum of money. Perhaps he feels a genuine affinity for the piece, perhaps he's a vain poseur impressed by the artist's fame, perhaps he's just attempting to re-create and redefine himself; the characters and their issues aren't that clearly delineated in the script. Serge speaks of Seneca and Valéry; he drops the word "deconstruction." All this is intensely irritating to his old friend Marc, who finds Serge pretentious and the painting a piece of shit. The third member of the trio is neurotic Yvan. When he's with Marc, he agrees that Serge's purchase is ridiculous; when he's with Serge, he says he finds all kind of nuance in the thing; when he's with both his friends — well, sparks fly and he has no idea how to handle them.

Somehow this all-white painting lets loose a bunch of petty demons: all the longstanding annoyances and ambivalences the men feel toward each other. Yvan is about to get married, and eventually the other two reveal their contempt for his fiancée. Yvan's not too keen on her himself; he's marrying her only because his continued employment in a stationery shop depends on the relative of hers who owns it, and there's all kinds of tension between their families. Still, his friends' disapproval cuts to the quick. Then it turns out that Serge can't stand Marc's lover, Paula, because, he says, she has an obnoxious way of waving off cigarette smoke. They talk about going out for dinner or seeing a movie, but they don't do either. A couple of wild punches are thrown. Soon Yvan is curled into a ball, nursing his hurt feelings and what he's convinced himself is a punctured eardrum, while the others, still bickering, ignore him. By the end of the evening, there's been a lot of psychic damage — and since it's the painting that did it, the painting must pay.

Art is very clever, and sometimes almost profound, though the emotions it arouses tend to dissipate fairly quickly after you leave the theater. Still, it's absorbing to watch, and you find yourself thinking about what your friends mean to you, the things you don't say to each other, all the accommodations you and they make to keep relationships running smoothly. You measure your own life against your friends' habits, failures and successes; you define yourself by the kind of people you have as friends.

For this production, director Richard H. Pegg has made some interesting choices. In the original script, Serge paid 200,000 francs for his treasure — about $35,000. But here the amount was paid in euros, making the piece far more expensive and suggesting that Serge is not just the member of the group with the most money and status, but stratospherically rich — which means Marc's rage could be in part about class and money as well as a sense of friendship betrayed. And where in most sets the disputed painting visually dominates all the scenes at Serge's home, and the gaze of audience members tends to return to it again and again as they try to decide whether the thing is pure hoax or something more, here the artwork spends most of the night with its back to the audience, and we think less about the subjective nature of art and more about the relationships among the men.

This is the third time I've seen Art, and it's interesting how those relationships shift with differing casts. Pegg has assembled three first-rate and highly individualized actors, and their ensemble work is terrific. Chris Kendall's Serge, with his tight little Cheshire Cat smile, gives the least away. I've encountered a coldly arrogant Serge and an urbane Serge, but this Serge is sort of cuddly, sort of secretive, and definitely the manipulator of the group (before, I'd always thought that was Yvan). Jim Hunt plays Marc — whom I'd imagined as something of a control freak — as physically over the top, slightly drunk and generally on the edge of control, a man whose bluster disguises neediness and hurt. In a riveting performance, Josh Hartwell makes Yvan sad, intense and inward.

You'll want to see this beautifully precise and very entertaining production with friends — and allow plenty of time for conversation afterward.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman