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Between its recent production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, in which theater professionals’ imaginations and lives play dodge ball with one another, and its current production of Yasmina Reza’s “Art”, Olney Theatre appears to be in an aesthetically self-reflective mode this fall. It couldn’t have known how appropriate that would be in such a somber season, in which thinking and feeling, the artist’s currency, have renewed cachet for the simple reason that they’re not thoughtless and unfeeling. Taste for taste’s sake, admittedly a priority secondary to survival, is suddenly all the more fragile and valuable because of that. What we are, when we aren’t worrying about whether we’ll continue to be, is, in large part, trying to figure out what we are. That’s art. And that’s “Art”, the sorrow-fringed comedy that justly garnered a Tony on Broadway in 1998 and is brought to lively, laugh-filled, bittersweet life here by director Jim Petosa and a small, splendid cast.

Serge (Alan Wade), a divorced, middle-aged dermatologist, has purchased a painting, a canvas of 5 feet by 4 that could, at least in the most pedestrian sense, be described as white, or possibly white on white. Some might argue that there are some diagonals, but if they’re there, of course, they’re white, so it’s difficult to say for sure. You might call the canvas pristine. If you were in a nasty mood, you might call it blank. If you were in an even nastier mood (or would it be a humorous or ironic one? That’s a key question in the play) you might call it shit. That’s what Serge’s friends Marc (Paul Morella) and Yvan (Christopher Lane) call it.

What kind of friends would call your new, prized purchase shit, especially when you paid 200,000 francs for it? That’s another key question in the play that, ultimately, has more to say about friendship than it does about art, which it treats primarily as a mercury reading of friendship. Well, friends might say the object in question was shit if they were worried about you or disappointed in you. An aeronautical engineer, Marc fears that Serge, his friend of some 15 years, is toadying to art snobs, putting on airs. Marc’s a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy who favors representational works, landscapes really, of a Flemish bent—though when Serge points this out, the way he says it, it sounds more like a phlegmish bent. Marc’s so suspicious of pretension that his very groundedness has become its own pretension, distanced from the possibility of awe, even of fondness. His laugh, meant to sound ironic, instead sounds murderous, and he wields it like an aural ax. He takes Serge’s art purchase seriously, because if art makes a statement, the purchase of it makes more of one, and Serge is stating his independence from Marc in a particularly visible way. “Why can’t you love people for what they are?” Serge asks him. Marc replies: “What are they, apart from my faith in them?”

Yvan, for his part, suspends judgment as best as he can. A born diplomat—or is he a born “amoeba,” as Marc asserts?—Yvan sees no reason why Serge shouldn’t have a white canvas if he can afford it and it gives him a kick. But then again, what’s the deal? Flitting from one career to another—he’s now in stationery or, as he puts it, “groping my way into the world of vellum”—Yvan is subservient to a hectoring fiancée and a host of other women, self-effacing before his friends, and so caught in the present that he’s helpless in its current. “I have given in to the logic of events,” he stammers, “…marry, children, death, stationery.” Misplacing a pen cap or recounting an agonizing conversation with his hated stepmother about wedding invitations, for this knot of a human being, brings the world to a desperate (and, for the audience, desperately funny) standstill. So, to Yvan, Serge’s new work seems like a joke, a gesture so apart from all that matters that it can’t matter. Yvan differs from Marc, however, in seeing the joke as harmless.

As for Serge, he sees, with alarm, the sadism in Marc’s insensitivity regarding the art purchase, and he fears of Marc (as Marc fears of him) that his old chum has lost his sense of humor. And once he realizes that Yvan’s approval of the painting is tenuous and mealy-mouthed, Serge lays into him, too. If Yvan seems to be drowning in the quotidian, Serge seems to have been so beaten up by it that he’s turned not only his modder-than-thou apartment but also his entire life into a lean abstraction as a defense. He’s a gallery-certified block of color wandering in a stark sea of expressionist absolutes. What could say nothing as loudly as a frameless white canvas on a white wall? Like the minimalistic temperament he favors, just by listening stony-faced and pushing a book by Seneca toward you, Serge virtually screams understatement, the hard, sure-of-itself kind that you want to tickle under the chin or kick in the shin, which his concerned buddies pretty much do.

Now, all of this could lead you to consider that these men simply hate each other. Yvan says as much, asking why they bother to get together at all. But like arguably ugly art, arguably ugly friendships sometimes have a worth that only a seasoned appraiser can fathom. And that’s what makes Reza’s play so fabulously clever. Having split the deck between the snobs and skeptics early in the drama, she sorts and shuffles the piles in a dozen ways that offer a commentary of their own: that it’s in the dialogue, the honesty, the beauty and the blotches of fragile visions and loyalties that the real value is. Sure enough, the playwright telegraphs, what you see really is what you get. The epiphanic angle on that is that if you look carefully, you’re always seeing something new and different, and if you don’t, then you don’t get it.

If all this sounds pretty European, by the way, it is. The play, which takes place in Paris, is translated elegantly from the French by playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton. But its characters’ very concerns and circumstances—from critiques of a restaurant’s heavy cuisine to their frequent, and not explicitly romantic, declarations of love—come with implied subtitles. The gorgeously appointed set by James Kronzer and the sleek Pradaish costuming by Helen Q. Huang only heighten the Continental sensibility. Sure, an analytical trio of men in the correct quadrants of various American metropolises might spend such an exterminating angel of an evening trapping each other in an apartment with observations and recriminations, but not without quoting stock prices or making fun of a politician.

Still, it’s the characters that give character to this absorbing production. Petosa keeps the intellectual tension intact through his brisk pacing, but more important, through allowing the trio to revel in the quirks that betray their quality and their pain. Wade’s Serge is brittle to his well-schooled bone. Morella’s attitudinal dagger is so recklessly waved about that you know he himself has borne most of its cuts. And Lane’s Yvan has only to introduce himself to move the audience to laughter—and pity. That, too, is twisted by Reza beyond the sitcom threshold, though—for if Yvan’s a mess, he’s also a dispirited seer, who finds that if misery loves company, humanity demands it. And sometimes that just means not laughing at something your friend loves—because your friend loves it. CP