Art! Wherefore art thou Art?
The trouble starts when Serge, dermatologist and budding art collector, shows his best friend Marc a newly acquired painting. The painting is a small one in museum terms, not even 6’x 6’. And it’s white, all white. Except white comes in different shades. So if you “screw up your eyes” you can see fine white lines painted diagonally against the all white background.
Marc thinks it’s just a heap of white crap.
Then Serge tells him it cost 200,000 francs. Appalling! At least to Marc. And appalling to Serge that Marc should question his taste, his judgment and his values. Because that’s what Marc focuses his ridicule on. He cannot believe that his friend has not been swayed by the forces of the art market that dictate that we pay outrageous prices for paintings by mining our more dubious desires for power, status and reputation. Love cannot be the source of our incomprehensible desire for acrylics on canvas.
So begins Art!, an award-winning play by French author Yasmina Reza, which opened recently at Center REP theater in Walnut Creek. The play, which premiered in Paris in 1994, was translated into English by British playwright Christopher Hampton for its London premiere in 1996. It moved to New York in 1998. It’s won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, a Molière Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play, a Tony for Best Play. And it’s had heaps of brilliant actors in its three roles.
Yes, three roles. The third character is Yvan, stationery store clerk, mediator and sloth. Yvan is the pivotal role, the one that questions the issues of status and power that Marc and Serge are struggling over. He is the unquestioned beta who watches the struggle of the two alphas, placating either one when the other isn’t present and hoping the 15-year friendship between the three endures this latest battle. He is the character who is marrying a woman he doesn’t entirely love because he can no longer tolerate the idea of growing old alone.
Center REP has three Equity actors in the roles, and their performances are skilled, energetic and convincing. J. Michael Flynn plays Marc as caustic, controlling and utterly sure of his values, even though his manipulation of Serge leaves his motivations in question. Owl-eyed and be-spectacled Cassidy Brown is Yvan the Unsure, who finds himself farther along in his life chronologically than he would like to be given the paucity of his achievements. Liam Vincent is smart, committed and unsentimental as the art-collecting novice Serge, who finally is willing to sacrifice his painting for his friend. All three actors meld together in a well-timed performance. The snappy direction is by Michael Butler.
The entire play takes place on an unchanging setting of abstract frames suspended on the three imaginary walls of the stage. We move from Serge’s place to Marc’s place through a change in the colors of the squares inside the white frames. In Serge’s home all the “paintings” are red light. It’s a clever device, set design was by Joshua Lipps. The monologues held as asides to the audience are marked out by spotlighting the speaker and darkening the stage behind. Lighting was by Kurt Landisman.
There is something distinctly European about the relationships between the characters, about what their expectations of friendships should entail. Even so the play touches on that valuable subject of what love and even loss of love inflict on the individual soul.
Art! continues at the Center REP at the Margaret Lesher Theatre in Walnut Creek through April 30. For tickets and information, visit centerrep.org.
– Jaime Robles
Photo: J. Michael Flynn (left), Cassidy Brown and Liam Vincent express their deeply held views on Art! at the Center REP in Walnut Creek. Photo by Kevin Berne.