Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Smart, Sharp Production of Art
Art has been described as a Euro-play. It was the toast of Paris in the late '90s, and the original French language version played in both Germany and Italy. Famed British playwright Christopher Hampton translated the 80-minute comedy to English and Art opened on October 15, 1996 at the Wyndham Theatre to great reviews. The London Evening Standard called it "chic, short and wickedly perceptively funny, it's the perfect West End play." The comedy walked off with the Olivier and London Standard Award for Best Comedy in 1997 before completing an amazing run of 2,400 performances, closing on January 4, 2003. During that time there were thirty changes of cast. We saw the second change, which starred Nigel Havers, Malcolm Storry and Ron Cook. I must admit I was not that impressed as they played this as a broad comedy borderlining on French farce.
Art had its American Premiere at the Royale on March 1, 1998 with Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina and received good reviews. It won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play and ran 600 performances. There was a successful road company with Judd Hirsch, Cotter Smith and Jack Willis. Since that time, almost every regional and community theatre has presented this allegory of politics of aesthetics, since it has only three characters and a minimal set. This is an actor's dream, with a nonstop crossfire of crackling language. It demands that the actors have formidable technical skills. The dazzling dialogue by Ms. Reza gets to the heart of serious issues of life and art in the outbursts of the actors.
Art is a story about art and friendship, and it is very simple. Serge (Steve Fryer) buys a modern painting for 200,000 French francs. It is a large, blank, white canvas with "fine white diagonal scars" by a famous artist who already has paintings in the Pompidou gallery. Serge believes he can sell it to an American gallery at a 40,000 franc profit. His best friend Marc (Michael Keys Hall) can't believe that Serge has purchased an empty canvas by a well-known artist. He is completely upset about this. Another mutual friend Yvan (Alex Robertson) is more ambivalent about the painting.
Art is not just about a painting. It's about friends' expectations of each other and their propensities. We see dangerous antagonisms spark that go into the men's personal lives. The white painting provides the butt for a long stream of philistine jokes, especially on the part of Marc and Yvan. The painting is only a catalyst in the experiment of human relationships.
These Art actors are superb, each in his own right. They are not only heroically talented but they have redoubtable technical skills. Their timing is impeccable, and they don't play the role like a farcical comedy. Director Lois Grandi has wisely steered the three actors away from that type of performance. As a result, we see an exciting night of acting in this production.
Michael Keys Hall is extremely comfortable and natural as Marc, the protagonist in this comedy. He just can't help saying what he thinks and he does it in a rapid speed. He puts his foot in his mouth many times when arguing with Serge. Steve Fryer, as Serge the consummate sophisticated art collector, is very resilient in his acting. He keeps the painting in focus all of the time. Alex Robertson is excellent as the "loser" who really has no set opinions about the painting. He is a classic whiner about to be married to what must be one horrible woman. He overextends his words, and most of his speeches are about himself. Robertson has the showiest role when he gives his long speech about the problems of wording his wedding invitation; it is a tour de force of self-revelation that is a highlight of the comedy.
Art is not a great play, but it is certainly an actor's play and it is successful in its exploration of friendship. The comedy will continue at Knights Stage 3 in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, Civic Street, Walnut Creek through December 4. For tickets please call 915-943-SHOW For more information about Playhouse West, visit www.playhousewest.org.