'Art' fills blank canvas with emotion

The play's action may revolve around an abstract painting, but, as Judd Hirsch explains, the drama is about friendship and loss.

February 27, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

''Sometimes I wish somebody would use 'Art' as the first initials of the real title: 'A Rough Time,' 'A Real Time,' 'A Real Threat.' " Judd Hirsch is tossing out suggestions for re- titling French writer Yasmina Reza's 1998 Tony Award-winning play.

It's true that a painting precipitates the action, but at its core, "Art" is a play about friendship.

Specifically, it's about three middle-aged French men whose 15-year relationship is threatened when one buys an expensive all-white, abstract painting, much to the dismay of the other two.

Hirsch, who stars in the touring production opening Tuesday at the Mechanic Theatre, admits he didn't recognize the play's broader context when he first saw it, in March 1998. "I think I didn't pay attention," he says from the tour's stop in Minneapolis.

Then he was asked to appear in it. He went to the Broadway production a second time. "When I saw it again, I started to listen to the words of the play, to the actual script, and I realized what they're doing is they're talking about something they didn't want to talk about, the under-the-skin stuff. It all comes out, but it's how long it takes them to really admit what it is that's bothering them," he says.

Hirsch, on the other hand, seems willing to talk about almost anything. In a career spanning almost four decades, the 64-year-old actor has successfully juggled stage and screen, especially the small screen. On stage, the two-time Tony Award winner has been a favorite of several acclaimed playwrights. Neil Simon's "Chapter Two" (1977) was written for him, as was Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly" (1979) and Herb Gardner's "Conversations with My Father" (1991). On television, he has starred in four TV series -- "Delvecchio," "Taxi," "Dear John" and "George and Leo" (five if you count "Detective in the House," which lasted only a month.)

On this particular morning, the loquacious New York native discusses modern art, his early friendships, his initial career as an engineer and his late TV co-star, Andy Kaufman.

For starters, there's his analysis of what's troubling the three guys in "Art." Primarily, he says, it's "this feeling of loss, the feeling that they're losing each other, the fear of losing part of your life because the friendship will be gone."

Hirsch recognizes these feelings from his own friendships as a young man. "There were three or four of us back when I was about to go to college," he says. "We would see each other almost every single day for about five, six years. It became necessary for us to know what we were going to do with each other each day -- go to the movies, the Chinese restaurant, the book store, the music store."

Like the three men in "Art" -- an aeronautical engineer (Hirsch), a dermatologist (Cotter Smith) and a stationery salesman (Jack Willis) -- Hirsch and his friends appeared to have little in common. And, he says, "We started to slide apart in a similar manner." His experience helped him understand the themes that make "Art" a "big" play. "It just happens to take only an hour and a half," he says.

Because of this brevity, playwright Reza leaves the characters' history up to the actors to discover. "What she's given us is sort of an empty jar to fill up," Hirsch says. A daunting task for any ensemble, it is even more so for three actors who didn't know each other, as was the case with this touring cast.

Rehearsal retreat

To bring the three closer, Hirsch invited the actors and director Matthew Warchus to his Catskills retreat last summer. "We all stayed there for a week and did the first rehearsals there," he says. "We had lunch with each other, breakfast with each other." In short, they couldn't get away from each other. The setup also gave Hirsch a chance to behave like Marc, his domineering character. "I could play mentor because I could control everybody," he says.

Unlike narrow-minded Marc, Hirsch brings some personal experience to the play's debate about modern art. Before becoming an actor, he briefly studied architecture in the 1950s at New York's Cooper Union, where studio art classes were required courses.

Abstract expressionism was all the rage at the time. But, he says, the nonrepresentational style "was one degree too far away from what I considered the true honesty of painting. I couldn't find the person in it."

He changed his mind, he continues, when he realized "there is a thing called design, and design does not come from simple rationality. It comes from visual feelings, and I started to do the damn things myself, call it doodling if you wish."

After stints in the Army and at Cooper Union, Hirsch graduated from New York's City College with a degree in physics and a job as an engineer, a career chosen through an aptitude test. But, he says, "I realized I could never last that long. My heart would fall out of my body."

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