by Clark Groome
Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina, three of our theater’s greatest actors, made up the cast of the original Broadway production of French playwright Yazmina Reza’s brilliant 85-minute one-act “Art.” When I saw the production the day after it opened in 1998, I thought no future production would ever match it. How mistaken I was.
Local A-list actors Tony Braithwaite, Ian Merrill Peakes and Pete Pryor form the flawless ensemble that director Bud Martin has assembled at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, where “Art” will be through June 12.
Marc (Braithwaite), Serge (Peakes) and Ivan (Prior) have been friends for years. Their relationship has survived marriages, children, divorces, job changes, just about everything that normally gets in the way of friendship.
That friendship may not, however, survive Serge’s purchase of a 200,000-Franc ($40,000) painting that is all white, with white textured diagonal stripes. Their conversations about the piece, about whether or not it is art, and about what it means in the grander scheme of their friendship are the substance of Reza’s play, compellingly translated by Christopher Hampton.
When Serge, a divorced dermatologist, spends all that money on the painting, Marc, an acerbic aeronautical engineer, bursts into laughter and calls the piece “white shit.” Serge is angry and hurt and lashes back with the “What do you know about it?” defense. The game is on.
Both Marc and Serge seek the ear of Yvan, their recently engaged and somewhat insecure friend who at first agrees with Marc and then, upon seeing the painting, isn’t so sure. The ensuing conversation is about what constitutes art and what truth individuals bring to their own reactions to a work that might or might not be art. Beneath the surface is the issue: why is it so important that Serge’s friends approve of his purchase, and why is Marc so brutally blunt?
The conversations they have are full of humor (some of it unintentional) and feeling. They want their easy, comfortable friendships to survive, no matter what. That is not to be.
If you don’t think a discussion of a painting’s merits could lead to discussions about more important things, reflect on the last time you and a significant person in your life disagreed about the movie you just saw. A snarl, a cold shoulder, a “not tonight, dear, I have a headache” can and often does ensue.
Opinions are fragile things; ask the reviewer or the reviewee of your choice if you don’t believe me.
Dirk Durossette designed the appropriately spare set. James Leitner’s subtle lighting, Wade Laboissinniere’s costumes and David O’Connors’ sound played a large part in the production’s success.
“Art” reminds us just how important art can be, and how close to the core of our beings our views are. It is a brilliant play stunningly performed.
For tickets to “Art,” playing at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse through June 12, call 215-654-0200 or visit www.act2.org.