For the first half of Yasmina Reza's 85-minute intermissionless play, the actors barrel through their lines with such blandness that it seems as if they're trying to set a speed record for Broadway one-acts -- or that they have simply failed to enlarge their nuanced efforts to fill the cavernous, 2,065-seat theater's confines. Although their voices are adequately amplified, the actors cut off words by dropping their intonation at the ends of lines, dilute expository scenes by rushing through them, and generally play the initial forty minutes as if they were on an intimate Hollywood sound stage, where every raised eyebrow and muffled grunt can be manipulated to considerable effect. Although that approach works well enough for people seated close to the stage, on opening night the actors' under- projected portrayals prompted at least a dozen patrons seated elsewhere to walk out before the evening was barely an hour old; others watched in stony silence or simply nodded off.
During the second half, however, the performers articulate the oddly similar dynamics that shape people's views about art and friendship. By the time best buddies Marc (Judd Hirsch), Serge (Cotter Smith) and Yvan (Jack Willis) finish dissecting -- and nearly dissolving -- the ties that bind them, Reza's clever dialectic manages to delight as much as it instructs (the play won last season's Tony Award for Best Play, beating out Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which is receiving a stellar production a few paces away in the Stage Theatre). And the meticulously constructed work, crisply directed by Matthew Warchus, hums along with the sort of immediacy and vitality that should have propelled it from the start.
For the most part, Hirsch (who is perhaps best known for his work on TV's "Taxi" and "Dear John") is engaging in the central role of Marc. When he learns that Serge has paid 200,000 francs -- roughly $35,000 -- for a large, all-white canvas adorned with barely discernible diagonal white stripes, he terms the modernist object a "piece of shit." Despite Serge's claim that neither of his best friends is able to appreciate the painting's intrinsic values ("That resonance you get from something monochromatic doesn't happen under artificial light"), Hirsch continues to cut to the heart of the matter by declaring, "You can't hate what's invisible." A few scenes later, Hirsch places the capper on Marc's the-emperor-has-no-clothes outrage by telling Serge, "Your penchant for idolatry has unearthed new objects of worship." And he deftly negotiates Marc's hairpin turn from rational discussion to hair-pulling contempt. In response to Serge's below-the-belt insinuation that his girlfriend is a "life-denying woman," Marc launches a full-scale attack on Serge's sensibilities by making an indelible impression on the sacred, sacrificial canvas.
Hirsch's mildly amusing star turn is ably supported -- and sometimes eclipsed -- by Willis, who lets it all hang out during an extended speech detailing the therapy-addicted Yvan's frustrations. He reaches his vocal and emotional peaks well before he should, but Willis elicits laughter and applause for maintaining a high level of comic despair while spewing a litany of interrelated cares. More satisfying are those moments when he conveys his character's feelings during a few starkly lit, contrapuntal episodes that provide us a glimpse of each man's deeper concerns. Near play's end, Willis eloquently integrates those sentiments into the ongoing debate as he observes, "Nothing brave or beautiful in this world has been born of rational argument."
Smith's postmodern Serge is marked by a string of underhanded comments that degenerate into personal attacks when his friends' jeering hits too close to home. He tosses off one- liners and comebacks with velvety smoothness while pacing about his sparsely furnished apartment of towering walls and oversized cornices (the industrial-monastic setting, designed by Mark Thompson, alternately represents the Paris homes of all three men, which are identical except for their differing tastes in art). Although he and his colleagues deliver the play's more profane passages with unnecessary punch, Smith's steady portrait illuminates its surface conflicts instead of merely splintering or triangulating them.
But no matter how intriguing and entertaining the production becomes, the playwright's underlying polemic about the cruciality of friendship takes a backseat to the actors' superficial yammering about art. With some increased attention to detail, the performers might yet transform their half-baked discussion into something more far-reaching and substantial than a serious-minded cocktail party for a close few.