'Art' paints a story of friendship

Review: Minimalist drama examines three middle-aged men's relationship.

March 02, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Even the title is minimalist. "Art" is a minimalist play about a minimalist painting.

One set, three actors, 90 minutes. Like the white-on-white painting that is a bone of contention for its three characters, Yasmina Reza's 1998 Tony Award-winning play, currently at the Mechanic Theatre, is not an especially deep work. Nor is it really about art.

Instead, it's about the friendship of three middle-aged men. And though they argue throughout most of the play, the chief argument they raise for this critic is whether men actually analyze their relationships with each other with such candor and in such excruciating detail.

Granted, there's the foreign element. The characters, like the playwright, are French. (The translation is by British playwright Christopher Hampton.) In addition, since this is a dramatic work, the action and speech are heightened.

And, Reza does make an interesting, if not especially novel, point about the nature of friendship. The foundation, her play contends, is often feelings of superiority, not equality.

Certainly that's the case for Judd Hirsch's smug, condescending Marc, an aeronautical engineer who has always seen himself as a mentor and arbiter of taste for his dermatologist friend, Serge (Cotter Smith). Lately, however, Serge has taken on cultural pretensions of his own and laid out 200,000 francs for a monochromatic painting, a purchase Marc interprets as a personal betrayal.

Attempting to smooth things out is meek, conciliatory Yvan (Jack Willis), a stationery salesman facing his own set of pressures from his impending wedding. Yvan is a very tolerant guy, Marc tells us, "which, of course, when it comes to relationships, is the worst thing you can be."

Marc says this in one of several asides that punctuate the action, asides Hirsch initially delivers in a style that makes Marc sound like a stand-up comic. Each character has at least one of these passages of direct audience address, letting the audience know what he really thinks. If inequality and superiority are the building blocks of this friendship, then disingenuousness turns out to be the mortar.

Knowing this, it's not surprising that what starts out as a disagreement over a painting escalates into personal warfare. When Marc lets loose, Serge blinks and recoils as if Marc's words were shrapnel. Yet poor Yvan turns out to be the one who gets punched -- inadvertently, while trying to break up a skirmish.

Under Matthew Warchus' taut direction, Smith's Serge, the calmest of the three friends, is driven by appearances but can also be decisive. Hirsch's egotistical Marc is a font of negativity, the type who reacts against just about everything. And Willis' agreeable, pudgy Yvan merely drifts. He's also, however, a nervous, anxious wreck, a condition Willis exploits to hilarious effect in the play's two funniest scenes.

The first, a rapid-fire comic monologue about his wedding woes, complete with a blow-by-blow description of a dispute over the wording of the invitations, is delivered by Willis with the sweaty fervor of a re-enacted prize fight. The second comes when he is inadvertently struck, and his "friends," after handing him a compress, immediately return to their verbal battle, oblivious to his pain and suffering.

Mark Thompson's set design serves the play well, with the same white apartment doing triple duty as each man's home, the difference indicated simply by changing a painting.

It's rather intriguing that Reza chose an all-white painting as the fulcrum of "Art." White encompasses all colors, yet this play covers a very limited spectrum. It is basically one act, with one plot (no subplots) and one theme. The play does resemble the painting in another respect, however. It's slick, but not great.

`Art'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $11.50-$51.50

Call: 410-752-1200

The `Art' of friendship

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