[Sidebar] May 17 - 24, 2001
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Blank canvas

Lenny Foglia shapes Trinity's Art

by Carolyn Clay

[] That French playwright Yasmina Reza's Art is a good play was testified to by the Olivier it won in London for best comedy in 1996, backed up the next year by its Tony for best play on Broadway. But the best praise it has received is the very fact that the play has been translated into some 35 languages, at recent count. Art has struck a deep, cross-cultural chord.

The set-up is simple. Serge, a comfortable but not wealthy Parisian dermatologist, pays the equivalent of about $3500 for a white-on-white painting. His friend and erstwhile cultural mentor Marc is appalled and furious as what he dismisses as a foolish judgment. Their mutual friend Yvan straddles the fence about the disagreement and tries to serve as conciliator. In the Trinity Repertory Company production, they will be played by Fred Sullivan, Timothy Crowe, and Dan Welch, respectively.

No matter how perceptive the volleying critical judgments are on stage, no matter how clever and scintillating the conversation, the play could never have gained its widespread popularity if Art had been strictly about art. No, the painting functions as a Rorschach test, virtually a blank-canvas into which the three men can assign rather than find meaning. Actually, the men never discuss art theory or art history, not more than in passing. What is really under examination here is the men's friendship, with the controversial purchase providing fuel to heat the conversational atmosphere, intensify the opinions, burn off the social dross and show each character for who he is.

Lenny Foglia doesn't think the play's theme is art, not fundamentally. It's about friendship, he says. And as director of the Trinity production he gets to make that clear to us on stage. Foglia has done such convincingly in the past, including on four occasions at Trinity from 1990-92, lastly with Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Since then, his career has clicked into overdrive. As well as working at other regional theaters, from the Pasadena Playhouse to Huntington Theater, in Boston, he has had plenty of New York success. He staged the 1995 production of Terrence McNally's Master Class that won the Tony for best play. Other Broadway credits include directing Quentin Tarantino and Marisa Tomei in a revival of Wait Until Dark.

Foglia spoke about Art recently after a rehearsal, sitting in Trinity's upstairs lobby.

Q: Is Art mainly about friendship, with art just the McGuffin?
A: Art is the catalyst. I think it could give been many things. [The playwright] could have picked a different catalyst that would have brought these three friends to this point of examining the dynamic of their relationship.

Q: Art was an interesting choice. There's something so personal about art judgments, a tendency to identify one's self with aesthetic judgments.
A: She picked not only art, but she picked this one particular school of modern art -- the whole white-on-white the thing -- the one area of painting that requires the observer to, in a way, become the artist, to put their own thoughts and feelings into what that piece of abstract art is. If it's something figurative, you don't put as much of yourself in it because it's all there.

Q: Do you think that the playwright was making fun of this as an extreme example?
A: I don't think she was making fun of it all. I guess that's because I'm thinking of it as a catalyst. There really isn't an in-depth discussion of art at all in the play. One guy says he loves it and another one says it's shit. That's about the extent of the discussion until very late in the play, when one of the characters says something about, "I don't value the principles that dominate contemporary art." I think he says at one point that surprise is dead meat, that once it's happened, it's over, something like that. When [the playwright] does refer to it, she refers to it very simply, with very clear knowledge of it. I think both sides are presented very clearly.

Q: So you don't think that Marc with his put-downs is being a stand-in for the naïve audience member who is dismissive of [some] art?
A: She cleverly lets the audience in in that way, until we realize that his feelings for not liking this particular art are a lot more complicated than that. It's a very easy way in for the audience, to go: "What, is this guy nuts?" Until he ends the play with a very eloquent description of the painting. Hopefully, there is that whole journey.

Q: Watching a play for the first time, do you find yourself second-guessing the director, noticing what you would have done differently?
A: When I'm seeing a play I'm very rarely thinking about the direction, I'm usually thinking about the play. Only if there seems to be some bizarre piece of direction that seems to get in the way of the play, that makes you notice it. But I'm not thinking about that as much as thinking about the play. If it's well-designed, you just go along for the ride.

Q: Are you taking different routes to get to the same places you saw in the London production, or are you trying to get to different places?
A: It was very well done, so I wouldn't pretend for a second that now I'm going to take a whole different tack on it. I just always try to treat a play, whether it's been done before or not, as if it's never been done before. Just look at the words; what is she trying to get across and how can I make it happen?

Q: With that approach you're likely to be surprised yourself, as you hope the audience will be. Were there opportunities and sub-themes uncovered for you in the rehearsal hall?
A: Yeah, the depth of the script always becomes clearer. Because you read it and you realize, Oh this is a very facile, witty, smart writer, and they're smart people in the play, and like with most smart people that can suffice. (Laughs) But then the more you work on it, you realize the depth of their feeling and why they're doing what they're doing, and then you try not to ride just the surface of it.

Q: In 1997, the New York Times asked 17 prominent people, "What is art?" No one thought the question could be answered, that art could be pigeon-holed that way. That said, what are your personal favorite things that happen when art happens?
A: That's a very difficult question. What happens when I consider something art? I don't know if this makes any sense, but when something hits me I get very optimistic about life. I see possibility in life. Because something's happened, the depth of human consciousness has somehow come to the surface and you are able to see to that depth through that person's eyes. It allows you to see to a depth inside yourself. Maybe that's why I see possibility from it.

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