To frame things as reductively as possible, Yasmina Reza’s Art and Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce are both about two guys reacting to the alarming behavior of a third.
Admittedly, it’s a pretty slim commonality. Dinny, the tyrannical patriarch who runs the show in Walworth, is violent, delusional, sadistic—the very model of a modern depressive sociopath. Serge, the catalyst of Art, is merely pretentious, dropping 200,000 clams on a painting that appears to his pals, and to us, to be a blank white canvas. “The resonance of the monochromatic doesn’t really happen under artificial light,” he explains, like an emperor protesting that his new clothes need only be brought in a bit.
Serge is a dermatologist by trade. That a surface unperturbed by form or color would call out to his soul is one of the better jokes here, which is to say this is neither the funniest nor the most insightful work ever to win the Tony Award for best play, which it did, or to follow its denouement with a deflating coda, which it does.
Anyway, the painting is just a McGuffin. So for that matter is the title, but would you see a play called Friendship? I wouldn’t, but that’s the real subject of Reza’s widely translated comedy: It’s a close examination of how one big-ticket splurge forces three middle-aged guys to confront the fissures that’ve slowly spread through their longtime bro-dom. And while a trio of sturdy-to-sterling actors inhabit these roles in Signature Theatre’s new production, they’re not so good we forget how little is ultimately at stake. If crusty classicist Marc (a nuanced and very funny Mitchell Hébert) turns out to be just the atrophied, judgmental “nostalgia merchant” that his modernist chum Serge (John Lescault, all entitlement and ease) accuses him of being, well, so what? The Pompidou isn’t going to close without his support.
Our emotional point of entry here could be Yvan, the soft corner of the triangle, whom the others keep around to echo their own opinions, or else to laugh at the way everyday trials continually overmatch him. Yvan’s slow realization that neither of his friends respect him should pack a punch, but Michael Russotto’s performance is so broad compared to the layered work Hébert and Lescault are doing that he seems to be in another show. (Specifically, Seinfeld.)
A similar lack of focus afflicts the set: If Marc and Serge both allow their taste in art to define so much of their identities, why are their apartments identical save for the landscape hanging on Marc’s wall that Serge dismisses as “Flemish”? Yes, it’s the same plot of stage, but you’d think designer James Kronzer could have found some way to make the two habitats appear different enough to reflect each man’s worldview. It’s an unwise thing to let our preferences in art, music, or politics govern our preferences in people, and to befriend someone who can see more that we can should only improve one’s life. Could, shoulda, woulda: In actual fact, sometimes people just wear out their welcome, and Art does, too.