[Sidebar] May 31 - June 7, 2001
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For Art's sake

Yasmina Reza's play scores on two fronts

by Steve Vineberg

ART. By Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Set designed by Michael McGarty. Costumes by William Lane. Lighting by Russell Champa. With Timothy Crowe, Fred Sullivan Jr., and Dan Welch. At Trinity Repertory Company, through July 1.

ART. Directed by David G. Kent. Set designed by Jeff Cowie. Costumes by Frances Nelson McSherry. Lighting by Kendall Smith. With Ken Baltin, Tim Gregory, and Ben Lipitz. At Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell [MA}, through June 17.

With its trio of characters set to work on one another's defenses for 75 intermissionless minutes, Art is a perfect bauble, a comedy of manners stripped down to its glittering essentials. Written by the French playwright Yasmina Reza, it's come to this country via the West End in a translation by Christopher Hampton (the dramatist of Les liaisons dangereuses) that preserves Reza's high-toned Paris setting, and Hampton's Anglo coloring in the language enables it to double up on the exoticism for American audiences. A number of personalities moved in and out of the justly praised Broadway production (including Alan Alda and Judd Hirsch), no doubt delighted at the opportunity to play the juicy showcase roles and take their turns with Reza's supremely polished banter. Now the play has moved out to the regional theaters; this month you can see it either at Trinity Rep in Providence or at Merrimack in Lowell. You're guaranteed a very enjoyable evening in either venue.

The three characters are friends whose relationship is tested when Serge buys a painting for 200,000 francs, a white canvas with a few diagonal white lines. When he presents it for his friend Marc's approval, Marc responds by laughing incredulously at Serge's squandering all that cash on "a piece of white shit." Then, scarcely able to contain himself, he rushes to tell their pal Yvan, the most sensitive of the three and by nature the mediator. But when Yvan comes around for a glimpse at the disputed work, some combination of his affection for Serge and his reverence for art prevents him from dismissing it out of hand. He infuriates Marc by coming out on Serge's side and claiming that he finds the painting compelling. The play climaxes in an extended folie à trois in Serge's apartment, where the painting becomes a battleground and all the quirks that the men have found irritating or downright objectionable in one another's personalities explode like firecrackers in their faces.

The play is a beautiful little piece of craftsmanship; it's fun to see how Reza applies the rules of high comedy to this tiny but eruptive dramatic situation. These men -- educated, articulate, with a taste for the best restaurants -- suggest enough of an aristocracy to provide a suitable high-comic milieu; their calling card, like the heroes of Noël Coward's plays or Philip Barry's, is their verbal athleticism. In his famous essay "What Makes Comedy High?," the American playwright S.N. Behrman identified as a key tenet of the genre that the characters approach trivialities with the utmost seriousness. This is the convention Reza builds her play around, demonstrating in the process why this overattentiveness to the small details of social intercourse is at the heart of high comedy. For Serge, buying a work by a fashionable painter is a declaration that he's arrived at an understanding of modern art. Marc, who has no respect for critics or collectors ("I piss on culture," he boasts), sees Serge's purchase as a betrayal, an abandonment; he doesn't recognize in this smug, pretentious owner of an "Antrios" his friend of 15 years. And Serge, hurt by the vehemence of Marc's attack, embraces his movement away from Marc's influence as a declaration of independence. Meanwhile both of them turn on Yvan, whose attempts to effect a reconciliation render him weak and spineless in their eyes, and whose late, emotional arrival on the scene, after a quarrel with his mother and his fiancée about wedding arrangements, they blame, with stunning unreasonableness, for souring the evening. The play has no real depth, but it does have comic resonance: we recognize our own petty quarrels in these men's preposterously overheated exchanges.

Any director who understands the text will see the importance of bringing a degree of visual style to a production of it: if the play itself doesn't look like "art," Reza's jokes lose their edge. Of the two productions, Trinity's, under Leonard Foglia's direction, is the more sumptuous, because of the gorgeous classical white set Michael McGarty has designed for the theater's smaller downstairs space. At Merrimack, the pared-down visuals (Jeff Cowie's effective set and the sometimes ingenious lighting by Kendall Smith) frame the elegance of David G. Kent's staging, which is inventive and amusing in its constantly changing grouping of the three actors. (Kent's physical direction falters only once, in the clumsy handling of the fight scene.) The main difference in the two versions is that Foglia keeps the proceedings light throughout whereas Kent can't resist shifting tones as the stakes in the three-way relationship get higher. I think this latter approach is a mistake. The final line of the play, which belongs to Marc, is touching, but it's even more so if the play hasn't made the coming apart of these men too serious a dramatic occasion.

What made it fun to see these two Arts back to back was the chance to watch two different sets of actors. Both ensembles work skillfully together. The only one of the half-dozen performers I might not have cast is Tim Gregory, Serge in the Merrimack production, because he's prone to play-acting. That's the danger in playing Serge, who is, after all, putting on a show for Marc from the outset. Fred Sullivan Jr., hilarious as Sir Oliver Surface in Trinity's season opener, The School for Scandal, finds a way to convey Serge's vanity and theatricality without making him seem entirely artificial. He's the anchor in the Trinity Art, whereas at Merrimack Ken Baltin's Marc grounds the show. Baltin has one of those marvelous long clown's faces that looks as if it had been steamrollered, and it can render dozens of variations on indignation and exasperation. Timothy Crowe (a memorable Sir Peter Teazle in The School for Scandal) isn't quite as pliable in the role, but his work with the language is excellent.

The two Yvans are very different physical types. Trinity's Dan Welch is soft-faced, and his conventional good looks suit the part of a man who's managed to hang onto his youth so long that the thought of giving it up (by marrying a woman whose uncle -- double bind! -- is his new employer) has crippled him with barely concealed anxiety. Welch grows in the part as the evening wears on; the big scene where he falls apart under the barrage of his buddies' insults is his best one. Ben Lipitz, at Merrimack, is burly and sweaty and far less poised. What you get from this man is a kind of desperation about everything: the marital adventure, the new job, the importance of keeping his friends from each other's throats. Lipitz is terrific; he makes what seems at first like physical miscasting into a kind of inspiration. In the Broadway production, the heavy hitters always played sardonic Marc, who has the funniest one-liners, but it's Yvan audiences love. He makes his second entrance with a long, frantic monologue that unfailingly brings a round of applause, but Lipitz's reading of it is wilder and funnier than Welch's.

Nothing can erase the memory of Alfred Molina's rendering of this speech on Broadway: he gave the impression of a man who'd been batted around by fate since the day he was born and had no resources left except an endless capacity for astonishment. But even if you were lucky enough to see Art in New York, you're not likely to complain about either of these mountings. Both companies rise to the occasion, and the comedy proves itself resilient enough to hold up after multiple viewings.

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