A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The acting, direction and staging are every bit as good as the hype that has preceded Yasmina Reza's canny comedy to the Royale. It was (and remains) a hit in Paris. It was (and remains) a hit in London, collecting two 1996 Best Comedy Awards (Olivier and Evening Standard). Like one of it's character's putdowns of his friend's taste in art, American theater and art critics are likely to pooh-pooh Art for its resemblance to American TV sitcoms and somewhat dated take on the shock appeal of abstract minimalism. While there's some foundation to these carps, ignore them.
Ms. Reza's play and its inanimate fourth character, a white painting, may be more Andy Warhol/Schnabel/Seinfeld than Rembrandt/Vermeer/Shakespeare, but it taps a chord that can resonate in any language. (It's already been translated into 20). It may not have the endurance of a masterpiece, but it does have enough wit and substance to give it the theatrical legs to make it one of the most produced, economically viable comedies of this decade and possibly the next. Best of all, Ms. Reza has provided the actors with a dream script -- sharp, amusing dialogue but with lots of room for the pauses and expressions you have to see to appreciate. With three virtuoso comedians -- Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina -- filling in this white matter and Matthew Warchus, the London production's director, once more at the helm, Art-in America is sure to keep riding Art-elsewhere's wave of its success.
As audiences settle into their seat at the Royale, the "fourth character" hangs with its back facing front. It drops out of sight to make way for Mark Thompson's wittily grand yet equally minimalist set. Three chairs and shifting wall art not only serve to steer us from one of three apartments to another but to characterize their occupants -- a thoroughly modern Mies Van der Rohe Barcelona chair for Garber, a traditional Queen Anne for Alda, and a stuffed arm chair of undefined povenance for Alfred Molina. As audience members catch their breath between laughs, they'll be reminded of Georges Braque's declaration that "art is meant to disturb." What could be so disturbing about a type of art that was a gasp-aloud shocker many a moon ago and has become a clichéd metaphor for the Emperor's Clothes?
Well, for one thing there's the 200, 000 francs ($40,000) Serge (Victor Garber) paid for it. That's a lot of money even for a successful dermatologist to shell out to satisfy his pretension to connoisseurship. Had he spent a hundred dollars or even a thousand, friend Marc (Alan Alda) might have raised an eyebrow without raising quite such a ruckus. However, the price tag as much as the painting underscores the tensions boiling beneath this fifteen-year friendship. While Serge is obviously as professionally successful as Marc, (an aeronautical engineer), the latter has positioned himself as the leader of these modern day musketeers and as Serge's superior in matters of taste. He's also a traditionalist whose idea of friendship seems guided by the ancient historian Sallust 's belief that "to like and dislike the same things is what makes a solid friendship." Clearly Serge's acquisition of something which Marc views as "white shit" flies in the face of that belief. The $40,000 and what it buys thus combine to pry open an emotional Pandora's box of disturbing feelings.
It doesn't take long to figure out that Art is not about the kind of art that's created with paint and brush, but the art of dealing with vive la difference in friendship. What starts with one friend proudly displaying his new acquisition to a friend whose good opinion he values, metamorphoses into a verbal duel that is all about the value and importance of the friendship and thus only peripherally about Serge's white painting, or any painting.
And where does the third friend, Yvan (Alfred Molina) fit into all this? Smack in the middle. He's a good-natured bumbler who unlike his friends has never managed to focus on a solid profession -- (he's only recently ventured into the stationery business through a soon to become relative by virtue of a marriage that seems doomed before the wedding cake is cut). Even physically he is not as put-together as his friends. His hair is more rumpled, his manner more disorganized, his clothing, while color-coordinated with Marc and Serge's, has the look of Today's Man rather than their Bloomingdale chic. Not surprisingly, Yvan is also far less opinionated and is discomfited to be drawn into this squabble. He can't understand Marc's "unease" over Serge's painting or even the fuss about the price which he knows Serge can afford. All he wants is the status quo of the friendship, a needed oasis amid the squabbles he's faced with in connection with his forthcoming wedding. Molina's lengthy recitation of these wedding problems, complete with voice switches to portray various relatives, is the evening's Tony-worthy showstopper.
Aside from Mr. Molina's memorable star turn, all the actors have wonderful moments in the limelight soliloquizing their interior thoughts. They're also terrific ensemble players, magicians of timing and meaningful looks and pauses. The completely non-verbal scene in which they share a bowl of unpitted olives guarantees that you'll never again eat that condiment without replaying that image in your mind. Picking the pits out of those olives is a perfect follow-up to their picking apart each other's feelings and opinions. It's the big little scenes like this that make Art such a tasty hour and a half (without intermission) of pleasure.
If Seneca, who's on the list of icons used by Serge to bolster his opinions were present at this dramatic duel he'd quote himself with "What fools these mortals be?" Do these particular fools wise up and save their friendship? I'm not going to tell you more than that the ending is not as glib and predictable as you might think, especially those of you tempted to approach Art with a seen-that-at-MOMA, been- there-on-the-little-and-big-screen shrug. This is not one of those plays in which the playwright who can't seem to exit with the grace and style of the initial promise.
Go see it. If director Marc Warchus reverses the parts, a he say he eventually plans to do, I''ll probably go back to see it again.