I saw Yasmina Reza's Art soon after it came out, on a visit to London with my daughter, Anna. Afterward, standing on the platform of the underground, we were accosted by a woman who had glimpsed us at the theater — an abrasive New Yorker — who wanted to know what we thought. It was a good play, we said. No, the woman retorted, it wasn't, and she walked away. We laughed all the way back to our hotel, both at her arrogant certainty and because her comment echoed some of the dialogue in the play, which, at least on the surface, is an extended argument about aesthetics.
Art concerns a trio of men who have been friends for many years. Serge, a dermatologist, has just bought an all-white painting — diagonal white stripes across a white background — and he's showing it proudly to Marc. But Marc is appalled. He considers the painting a pretentious piece of chicanery or, as he terms it, shit. He's even more disturbed when he learns that Serge paid 200,000 francs — around $39,000 — for it. The third member of the group is Yvan, rumple-haired, bewildered and far less successful than the other two. Yvan is about to get married; he wants only to keep peace between his friends and maintain a relationship that serves as a haven in his flustered world. The debate about art and perception is a little dated, since people were arguing about conceptual and minimal art — things like all-white canvases, endless circles and grids, unicolor works dissected by a single contrasting line — way back in the 1960s, but the play's real focus is on messy, non-artistic human friendships, the parts that are visible and the assumptions and neuroses below the surface. The script is rather like a New Yorker cartoon: very funny, crisp and clever, a little uni-dimensional, elegant and with just a hint of depth. These guys aren't richly drawn; they're not characters we'll remember for a long time once we've left the theater. But there's something fascinating and touching about them, particularly in the contrast between the sophisticated veneer that two of them affect, and the cloddish rage and neediness that periodically erupt to roil it.
Michael Gunst makes Marc a sneering presence with an annoyingly condescending laugh; when we finally find out what he's so angry about, though, his behavior makes perfect (though surprising and embarrassing) sense. As played by Joseph Lekarczyk, Serge at first seems warmer and more rooted than Marc; we believe he bought the white painting not out of insecurity and pretension, but because it moved him, and we're both amused and disappointed when his petty side reveals itself. Curled on the sofa, nursing an injured ear, Yvan is a cuddly teddy bear — but Sam Elmore eventually lets us see the manipulativeness beneath his likability. (One small criticism: I wish he'd slow down the long, hilarious speech in which Yvan describes the familial politics surrounding his wedding invitations enough to let us take in the words.) The actors manage to fill the stage with an appealing and disheveled humanness, without in the least disturbing the white space that surrounds Reza's words. They do this through complete conviction, generous ensemble work and perfect timing.
You leave the theater thinking about what your own friends mean to you, and two of the essential ways in which they mitigate the existential loneliness of life. Friends tell you who you are by holding up a mirror, responding to what you do and say. And friends also affirm your identity by being who they are. I am a certain kind of person, you think, because I have this kind of friend — whether smart, successful, empathetic, creative or funny. If our friends refuse to validate our sense of ourselves or to be who we thought they were, we find ourselves alone in the dark. As directed by Charlotte Brecht Munn, the Theatre 13 production of Art communicates all this with deftness, humor and style.