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You’ll have heard that Art is funny, and it lives up to its rep. Before opening on Broadway two years ago, Yasmina Reza’s comedy—about three friends arguing the merits of an essentially blank, white-on-white painting—had already taken 25 countries by storm. Raves have been the rule, from critics and audiences alike. And what’s not to love? It’s stylish and clever, and has just enough texture to convince patrons that their gray matter is being engaged.
Producers—including Sean Connery, who co-financed the London, New York, and American touring productions when Reza was unwilling to part with the movie rights just yet—find the play especially engaging, and they should. As a commercial contrivance, Art is a minimalist marvel: three characters, one deliberately blank setting, a lighting effect or two, and nothing more than a canvas and a bowl of olives as props. Add a star—Judd Hirsch in the current Kennedy Center engagement—and the show is as sure an investment as the theater comes up with these days. The play’s Broadway investors, according to a program note, more than tripled their money during its 18-month run.
There’s certainly nothing shameful in that take, especially in an era when straight plays almost never make profits. If I’m a trifle reserved in my own enthusiasm, it’s mostly because critical hosannas have made Art sound like a new Stoppard opus, not like the sharp little French sitcom that’s actually occupying the stage of the Eisenhower.
Most reviews have suggested that the play—in which a fellow named Serge pays a fortune for what amounts to a blank canvas, his buddy Marc derides it, and their mutual pal Yvan throws gasoline on the fire between them by trying to make peace—is more about relationships than about aesthetics. Or about aesthetics, but in a human way. Or about humanity in an aesthetic way. Everyone agrees that it’s cleverly written, even if you don’t hear anyone actually quoting lines from it.
It says something, indeed, that the most memorable line all evening—the first to get a really big laugh—is “Aaaahh.” That’s Yvan’s response, uttered after a decidedly pregnant pause when he’s first shown the painting, and it speaks worlds about the playwright’s method. If Marc’s unequivocal “It’s a piece of white shit” is what sets the play in motion, Yvan’s mealy-mouthed “Aaaahh” is what keeps it moving, because what isn’t said in Art is invariably as important as what is.
Appealingly nebbishy Yvan (Jack Willis in a cagey, winning performance) is a salesman and, consequently, a master of the inoffensive conversational gambit. But in an environment where every phrase gets deconstructed, that particular skill just makes him a sitting duck. Marc (Hirsch playing smug arrogance and aggression for all they’re worth) lobs traditionalist grenades from one side, Serge (a poised, waspish Cotter Smith) counters with modernist artillery from the other, and poor defenseless Yvan gets caught in the crossfire.
These three men are no more talking about the price of paintings when they argue the worth of the one onstage than they’re talking about carcinogens when Serge attacks the way Marc’s girlfriend waves away cigarette smoke at parties, or about in-laws when Yvan erupts in an applause-provoking, seven-minute, how-the-hell-does-he-breathe tirade about his upcoming wedding. They’re just using recognizably specific objects as place-holders in an ongoing battle about the way they’ve interacted for two decades. If the truth be known, they don’t like each other very much. And as their friendship reaches meltdown, it becomes easier and easier to see why.
Doesn’t sound like a scream, does it? Still, for all its anger and hurt feelings, Art is funny. Not falling-in-the-aisles funny, like the ’60s Neil Simon comedies it much resembles—call it The Odd Trio and no one will say nay—but certainly funnier than any mainstream comedy about art aficionados to come along since John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.
If Art doesn’t scald like that earlier play, that’s partly because Reza’s arguments are self-contained, whereas Guare’s in Six Degrees deal with broader social issues. And no one in Reza’s play ever pauses for introspection. Art offers the illusion of depth without the risk that anyone—be he character or patron—might actually drown. Reza inserts little authorial hiccups, having each protagonist utter, in asides, what he really ought to be saying aloud to the others. But for all the flair and verve of the staging, and the considerable star power and acting savvy on display, the insults ultimately grow overstated enough that the outcome of the squabbling is dismissible. You watch the final moments of the play, comfortably distanced from the characters, thinking, Well, I’d never have gone that far.
Director Matthew Warchus—the same tyro who just garnered headlines with Broadway’s new star-switching True West—has noted in interviews that Art operates in a theater in much the same way as the artwork on which it centers. Some observers—and I suppose I should include myself among them—dismiss it as attractive but shallow; others find themselves moved. Fortunately, nearly everyone finds it funny.
And perhaps the best joke is one from which we can’t easily distance ourselves: that as audience members, we’ve paid a fortune to see a stylishly content-free play called Art about a guy who pays a fortune to own a stylishly content-free piece of art. There are variations in scale, of course. The white-on-white painting in the play diminishes Serge’s bank account by some 200,000 francs (roughly $30,000); an orchestra seat to Art will set you back only about $65. Then again, Serge gets to keep the painting, whereas the play is likely to evaporate on you by the time you get to the parking lot. CP