Your friend spends an extravagant amount of money on a painting. The painting, for all intents and purposes, looks like a solid white canvas. He insists it’s beautiful, you insist it’s garbage and he’s been swindled by art-world pretense. Who’s right?
That’s not really the question at the heart of Yasmina Reza’s comedy “Art,” which instead explores the relationships between Marc, Serge and Yvan, three men who find their friendships tested in the wake of Serge’s purchase of a $200,000 all-white (or is it?) painting.
The Bunbury Theatre closes its season with its production of “Art.” Directed by Madison Cork, the comedy runs through Sunday at the Henry Clay Theatre (Third and Chestnut streets).
Reza’s play (translated to English by Christopher Hampton) has won the biggest awards in three countries – the Tony Award for best play, the Olivier for the West End production and France’s Molière - and the 1994 script feels as fresh today as it was 20 years ago, raising questions that are sure to spark lively conversations about taste, principles, and friendship after the show.
The show opens with Serge (Dale Strange) proudly showing off his new painting to Marc (Phil Lynch), who dismisses it – and Serge’s taste – with a callous epithet. Marc’s opinionated, acerbic, and allergic to modern art and culture, while Serge allows himself the enthusiasm to be swept up in the new and fresh. Driving the play forward are Marc’s inability to allow Serge to enjoy his purchase and Serge’s frustration at Marc’s disapproval – both men extrapolate these seemingly innocuous actions into larger indictments of one another’s character. When they bring the overly-accommodating Yvan (Joshua Loren) into the argument, his attempts to play both sides of the fence in order to smooth things over backfires.
But these three men need each other, because outside of their friendship, each seems quite alone in the world. Yvan is incapable of being happy, even on the brink of his wedding. Marc’s exacting standards leave him little room to accommodate disagreement. Serge wants to feel a part of something larger than himself. Reza is an actor’s playwright, and she gives each character the kind of meaty monologues and delightful arguments that can turn three grown men bickering in a living room for 90 minutes into a sheer delight of language and emotion.
Cork has staged a production of “Art” that is breezy and fun, but lacks a certain undercurrent of interpersonal danger that at times can undermine the very real emotional stakes of the play. It’s definitely a crowd-pleasing interpretation of the script, and the Wednesday night audience seemed to appreciate it (it’s possible my own tastes run somewhat further toward the grotesque). Strange and Lynch turn in rather appealing performances of two prickly, off-putting characters, relying on comic gestures (the white hankies Serge uses to handle his paintings, for example) to deliver comfortable laughs rather than the uncomfortable laughs Reza’s script, in its uglier moments, can serve. Strange doesn’t nail Serge’s necessary sophistication, and Lynch’s curmudgeonly Marc never seems strongly convicted enough to be taken seriously. Loren plays middle-man Yvan so broadly that his man-child antics are certainly funny, but come at the expense of the audience truly feeling his despair.
Bunbury opens its next season in October with Londos D’Ariggo’s “Spreading It Around,” a farce about a wealthy widow who doles out a lesson to her ungrateful adult children. The season also includes two original plays by producing artistic director Juergen Tossman (“Forgive Me It’s Christmas” in December and “Bonhoeffer – the Last Encounter” in April) and David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre,” which opens next February.