Yasmina Reza's Popular Art
Serge, a successful physician, is visited in his apartment by his friend Marc. Serge has just purchased a large painting. Its surface is completely white. However, you can see on the canvas three diagonal white lines "if you squint your eyes." Serge expresses pride at his acquisition of his new "Antreos" which the famed dealer "John De'Longhi" (both fictional names we can presume) would buy from him for $5,000 more than his purchase price. The apoplectic Marc finds the painting to be a hideous joke. Having no compunction about giving offense, he exclaims to Serge, "You paid $75,000 for that piece of shit?," and we are off to the races.
Over the course of the balance of the play, we are treated to the shredding of, and ultimately an attempt to restore, the fifteen-year friendship among Serge, Marc and a third friend, the sweet, but spineless Yvan. With little success, Yvan attempts to steer a middle course between his two friends, desperately seeking to please both.
One of the major strengths of Art is that the three friends are multi-dimensional and allow directors, actors and audiences to synthesize the various facets of their personalities and draw their own conclusions about them. Our conclusions about each of the friends vary somewhat from production to production and from one of us to another.
For me, on stage at Two River, Serge is a status seeking, slightly nerdy fellow who is uncertain as to whether there is any artistic value to his acquisition. His prime reason for the purchase was to obtain status within the arty, upper class circle into which his career and financial success have brought him. He strongly needs the approval of his long time friends, especially Marc, who over the years had been his mentor in matters of taste. Tim Barker, his hair and suit both rumpled, nicely projects a nervous lack of confidence inappropriate to his status along with a likeable bonhomie.
Marc, an aeronautic engineer, is accurate at least as to his opinion of Serge's motives. Still, Marc's behavior toward him is insensitive, hostile and condescending. Although, eventually we learn that a large part of Marc's hostility derives from his jealousy over losing Marc as an acolyte, there can be no excuse for treating his friend as he does. Howard W. Overshown's aggressively hostile and arrogant portrayal of Marc contributes to our dislike of him. A more measured performance in which Overshown would subtly display more humanity and concern for Serge would enrich the play. At the least, it could give us a reason to believe that there had once been a friendship that was worth saving. However, it is certainly true that Overshown's performance adheres totally to the surface of the text.
The rudderless, dominated Yvan has a wisdom that is hidden by his spineless behavior. Yvan does not think that the Antreos is worthy, but adds unassailably, "if it makes (Serge) happy, he can afford it. As long as it does harm to nobody else ... ." Michael Ray Escamilla conveys the decency of the shaggiest of the three friends and how aggravating his weak dissembling makes him. It is when Yvan finally stakes out an honest position that the three begin to make a serious, albeit tenuous attempt to repair their friendship.
The modernistic open set by Luke Hegel-Cantarella is placed on a freestanding rectangular stage built into the auditorium. Serge's living room is transformed into the living rooms of Marc and Yvan, respectively, with the addition of a lowered traditional painting for each. Director Kristen Kelly's unfussy direction allows us to concentrate on the actor's interpretations of the three friends and their interrelationship.
Written by French playwright Yasmina Reza, Art comes to English speaking audiences by way of the free flowing, colloquial English translation of British playwright Christopher Hampton. With the American accents of the actors and the elision of a few British expressions, most viewers will likely assume that the setting is Stateside. However, the names of the three men, Serge (pronounced like the fabric), Marc and Yvan (pronounced Yon) suggest France. There is a cosmopolitan universality to Art that should make this irrelevant, but I found the lack of clarity as to the setting a distraction.
By successfully combining light comedy with intellectually stimulating ideas, Art provides theatre audiences with satisfying, guilt free entertainment.
Art continues performances (Eves: Tuesday-Saturday 8 p.m. /Matinees: Wednesday 1 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday 3 p.m.) through October 19, 2008 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.
Art by Yasmina Reza; directed by Kirsten Kelly
Photo: Mark Garvin