SF Playhouse puts a different spin on Yasmina Reza’s Art
It seems almost every regional company in this country has presented the intellectual comedy about friendship between three men since it first appeared in Paris in 1995. It’s easy to produce since it only needs three actors - but they must have have extraordinary feelings for the material. Art is an actor's dream of non-stop crossfire of crackling language. This cast meets all qualifications of the roles. I first saw the production at the Wyndham Theatre in London with Nigel Havers, Malcolm Story and Ron Cook years ago, and the play was billed as a tragedy. It certainly was a tragedy and I was reminded of the words of Shakespeare after seeing the short piece. It was “much ado about nothing.”
Last year Playhouse West presented a super production of Ms. Reza’s celebrated work, and director Lois Grandi wisely made it into a comedy. The production became palpable since it made more sense. Director Robin Stanton has made this production even funnier where it now borders on farce. It’s a fun evening of watching the three men argue over a 200,000-franc canvas that is white on white.
Serge (Bill English), a wealthy dermatologist with airs to cultural supremacy, has purchased the painting by a famous contemporary artist who has paintings hanging in the best art galleries in Paris. Yvan (Keith Burkland) is a simpler sort, a sort of man-child who agrees with everyone and does not have an opinion of his own. Marc (Louis Parnell), an aeronautical engineer, is the most complex of the trio. He has been close friends with Serge for 15 years. When Serge tells his friend the price of the painting, Marc responds by calling the painting a “piece of crap.” Marc is the kind of person who loves to tell people how to run their lives, so a great dissertation begins about their friendship, with the painting being the catalyst for the arguments. Yvan is in the middle, bouncing like a tennis ball between the two with no real opinion of his own.
Many have asked just what the play is about. Yvan hits the nail on the head when he reads a diagnosis from his psychiatrist, whom he sees twice a week. It reads “If I’m who I am because I’m who I am and you’re who you are because you’re who you are, then I’m who I am and you’re who you are. If, on the other hand, I’m who I am because you’re who you are and if you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I’m not who I am and you’re not who you are” That’s the theme of the whole play.
Louis Parnell (The Violet Hour, The Fantasticks SFBATCC nomination My Antonia at TheatreWorks) as Marc is remarkably deft in delivering the playwright’s lines. He is sharp and his timing in the confrontation with Bill English who plays Serge is right on the mark. English (Artistic Director of Playhouse, numerous awards for acting and directing) is excellent as a “superior being in the cultural world” and he never relaxes this superiority even to the point of almost losing the friendship of his best friend. Keith Burkland (received Outstanding Supporting Performance Honors from the SFBATCC last year for Our Town) is top drawer as the man child who delivers the now famous monologue about the horrors of an upcoming wedding. He plays the individual with a two to three day growth of beard and he looks completely disheveled in dress and manner.
San Francisco Playhouse uses little or no scenery on a light gray background. Boxes are painted white and used as furniture. On the back wall is a painting that changes occasionally with art that looks like it came from local motels. Director Robin Stanton has helmed a superlative fast-paced production.
Art runs through July 30 at The Playhouse, 536 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-677-9596 or TicketWeb.com or the TIX box office on Union Square.