Bowie theater finds depth, comedy in simple piece of 'Art'

Yasmina Reza's 1994 classic continues at Bowie Playhouse through March

  • Terry Averill (Marc), left, Morey Norkin (Yvan), center, and Louis B. Murray (Serge), right, discuss art.
Terry Averill (Marc), left, Morey Norkin (Yvan), center, and… (Bud Johnson, Baltimore…)
March 23, 2012|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Nearly two decades after Yasmina Reza's comedy "Art" debuted to international acclaim, the story about the nature of expression and friendship continues to fascinate audiences at Bowie Community Theatre's production at Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park.

The play, now translated into more than 30 languages, opened in 1994 in Paris. It then became a success in London, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for best comedy before arriving on Broadway in 1998 to win a Tony Award.

Set in Paris, the play reveals what happens to three longtime male friends when one buys an expensive, minimalist all-white painting by a trendy artist and invites his friends to see his investment. This 200,000-franc blank slate artwork engenders a discourse on what constitutes art, and the three friends' attitudes toward the piece come to define them.

The buyer is successful dermatologist Serge, who views himself as a sensitive art connoisseur who wants to share his joy and love of this painting with his friends. Marc, his mentor and an aeronautical engineer, is so angered by the purchase that he now finds Serge a posturing snob. Marc is a traditionalist who prefers classic art and deplores anything trendy.

Serge's struggling businessman friend Yvan is neutral, which infuriates both Serge and Marc. Yvan is so beset by rising complications in his impending marriage that he is unable to deal with his friends' mounting anger.

Reza's play has a fourth character: the painting itself, which elicits extended, somewhat nervous laughter from the audience. Studying this canvas we may begin to see the horizontal and vertical lines and even some lurking colors lending depth of expression. Or we may laugh at ourselves for being taken in.

Reza has supplied amusing dialogue in the friends' endless sparring. Serge tells Marc he is just "playing with words" while Marc bemoans Serge's use of the word "deconstruction," terming it "unforgivable in the air of solemnity it was imbued with." Those in the audience aware of academia's enchantment with this concept from French textual criticism giggled at Marc's exaggerated, albeit understandable, reaction.

Having first enjoyed this play in 2004 — when I do not recall laughing as heartily — I found BCT's trio of actors to be superb comedians who masterfully interpreted every sharp comic jab for maximum effect. Director Joe Del Balzo has assembled a cast of three skilled actors who resemble competing athletes hurling well-placed barbs at their targets in this culture war, while also revealing their characters' innermost feelings and deepest concerns.

Louis B. Murray becomes Serge, disarmingly open and eager to share his beloved acquisition before registering disappointed shock at Marc's reaction. Ensemble player Murray lends an intriguing rhythm to the dialogue interplay and provides sharp comedy in monologues and exchanges.

Terry Averill defines Marc, from his first confused view of the painting, wordlessly conveying his suspicions that it may be a joke, and later erupting in angry disdain for the work and for Serge's gullibility or pretension. In Marc's first encounter with the canvas, Averill expresses a gamut of emotions that meld into Marc's realization that he will no longer be Serge's mentor, a role in which he apparently defined himself.

Cast as Yvan, the struggling businessman and neutral friend, Morey Norkin becomes the peacemaker who cherishes his spot as the trio's joker. He is a novice stationery shop manager, struggling to survive and desperately needing the tranquil haven of this enduring 15-year friendship.

Not as sharply dressed as his friends, Norkin's Yvan is somewhat rumpled and disheveled, which suits his gentle peacemaker role, confused at Marc's unease with Serge's painting while cheerfully tolerating the piece of art because it brings Serge happiness. The comedy intensifies when Norkin's Yvan launches into his recitation of the squabbles surrounding his coming wedding, complete with mimicking various relatives. Along with the opening night audience, which erupted into applause, I'd rank Norkin as the best comedian of the three.

Also worthy of accolades is a set design by Del Balzo and Debbie Samek that captures the sleek, smart look of an upscale bachelor apartment that doubles for both Marc's and Yvan's with the change of a few accessories.

This play offers 90 minutes of engrossing theater that entertains and enlightens as we view new aspects of ourselves in our search for meaning hidden in this white canvas art.

Performances continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through March 31. For reservations call 301-805-0219 or online at

Also in area theater:

Congratulations to Annapolis Opera on presenting eight outstanding finalists last Sunday at its 24th annual vocal competition at Maryland Hall. Kudos to grand prize winner Sarah Mesko, second-prize recipient Melody Wilson, Audience Choice Award and third-prize winner Shannon Kessler Dooley, and the five winners of Study Awards.

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