Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Serge, the man who just purchased the painting in question for 200,000 francs (the play is set in Paris, pre-Euro) is enthralled by it, delighting in finding just the right placement and lighting to bring out the painting's subtle mystique. Moreover, he is elated by the fact that he, only recently immersed in the world of modern art, has come into possession of this "masterpiece," as he describes it. Serge's best friend Marc, on the other hand, sees nothing of value in the painting unless, he posits, it is meant as a joke, razzing the pretensions of serious modern art. In fact, we are not too much further into the play before Marc calls it "a piece of shit."
Here's what they are looking at: a roughly five-foot by four-foot canvas covered completely in white, with a few slender diagonal lines created using subtle variations of white, perhaps some beige or taupe or grey mixed in. To Marc, at any rate, it is an all-white canvas, and an extraordinary rip-off. Marc doesn't just disagree with Serge about the merits of the painting; he is enraged by what he sees as its pretense and, most of all, at Serge for purchasing it. Serge retorts that Marc cannot be expected to understand, being unschooled in modern art, which only further infuriates Marc. To Marc, Serge's purchase of the painting is a kind of banner raised to declare himself a different kind of person than Marc, different from the man Marc had counted as one of his two best friends for fifteen years.
The other of Marc's–and also Serge's–best friends is Yvan. Both Marc and Serge hold and express strong feelings about things (we are led to believe this applies to many things, not only modern art). Yvan, on the other hand, is noncommittal in his feelings and tastes. This is not because he doesn't care, but because it is more important to him to be in harmony with his friends than to make an issue over preferences as to which movie to see, which restaurant to dine at, or which painting to admire. His open-mindedness, or indecisiveness–it can be viewed through either lens–has gotten him into a marriage engagement to a controlling fiancée, about which Yvan is ambivalent, if not outright anxious.
Marc and Serge put Yvan in the middle of their conflict over the "Antrios." He tries to take a moderate middle ground, but that won't fly. As his two friends become increasingly volatile in stating their positions, they insist that Yvan take a stand. The play, which runs one act of about 80 minutes, is constructed of meetings between Marc and Serge, Marc and Yvan, Serge and Yvan, and a final section in which all three have it out. There are also interludes where each of these men break the fourth wall to describe what they are going through to the audience. Their discord over the white painting unleashes all kind of other bones of contention and repressed opinions, such as their feelings about one another's choice of romantic partners, or the manner in which they respond to one another's feelings–which is, not surprisingly, not very empathically. To illustrate, at one point, Yvan describes the discord among them as a disaster, and Serge concurs, "It is a disaster, especially for me."
Art was written by Reza in her native French, and first performed in Paris in 1994. It was translated into English by the playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, opening in London in fall 1996, where it ran for over six years. Its debuted on Broadway in 1998, where it lasted for 600 performances. In all three cities it earned top awards, including both the Tony and New York Drama Critics awards for Best Play. Despite all of its critical acclaim and commercial success, it feels to this reviewer like half of a story worth telling.
These guys have been best friends for fifteen years, but at the onset, it is hard to imagine why, other than the inertia of whatever brought them together years ago. They are each quite different from one another, but there had to have been a common chord. Did they work together? No, they have different professions. Were they in school together? Maybe, but based on their appearance, they were probably out of school fifteen years ago when the friendships formed. Did they go to the same gym? Knowing how their three-way friendship began and what nurtured into becoming central to their lives would give us more reason to care about its preservation. As it is, we are watching three men, none of whom are terribly likeable–well, Yvan is likeable but pitiable–for whom these friendships seems to have run their course and might just as well move on. Or not, and they just settle for being best friends with people whose interests have diverged and are not reliably pleasant company.
Having said that, the dialogue between them is extremely sharp and often howlingly funny. These three men have been around one another long enough to have dropped any filters in what they say, which may not always be the best quality for sustaining a friendship. The script is abetted by Kimberly Senior's direction, sensitive to pauses, vocal tone, facial and hand gestures, and other elements beyond the words themselves that draw out the humor and the bite built into the play. A bit of munching on olives, for example–a simple act turned priceless! Even if we don't have any information about these three old chums' shared backstory, we are at least made to be curious whether they will untangle the mess brought on by their free-wheeling criticism and narcissism or whether they will decide that their friendships have reached an expiration date.
The cast is outstanding. Robert O. Berdahl's portrayal of Serge completely captures the kind of man whose response to someone sharing that they are dealing with a lot of stress is to recommend reading–no, direct him to read–a certain Greek philosopher: "you'll never need to read anything else." He is the kind of intellectual who relishes being able to understand things beyond the ken of his friends. Patrick Sabongui, as Marc, creates the most stereotypically "manly" persona, shunning any interest in the arts beyond what is simple and direct, and demanding complete agreement with his perspective on things.
Max Wojtanowicz is Yvan, the character whose feelings are closest to the surface–in fact, in one scene Yvan blubbers real, messy tears–and not well received by the other guys. He conveys a "can't we all just get along" point of view, unable to see that the answer may be "no, we can't." Wojtanowicz has the showiest role and delivers a hilarious narration concerning a wedding invitation crisis (most of us who have ever been a bride or groom in a wedding can relate) that is a wonderful bit of a mini-performance piece all on its own.
Sound designer Mikhail Fiksel has composed new-age, electro-poppy sounding transitional music that feels like a perfect compliment for the brazen piece of modern art on stage. The almost bare set–a square parquet-floored platform that juts out a bit from the proscenium–serves as the living room for all three men, distinguished by the work of art on display. Raquel Barreto's costume designs are well suited to each character's personality and Xavier Pierce's lighting design meets the needs of the play nicely.
Reza's premise that male friendships are built on sharing activities (sports, movies, card-games) and not feelings, and that they cannot sustain the weight of lowering one's emotional guard, still bears some truth thirty years after the play first arrived, though, thankfully that has not been my experience. There seems now to be a cultural shift in younger generations that may portend change. We will see. It would also be interesting to see how the play would work if it were about three women rather than three men.
At the same time, we live in a nation of deep political and cultural divisiveness where one cannot tolerate another who holds a different point of view on any number of issues. The merits of a particular painting may not be among those issues, but increasingly it seems that every aspect of culture is assigned a place on one or the other side of an immense divide. Perhaps, then, Art now addresses a different, even more compelling concern about trying to connect across our different vantage points and maintain a sense of shared humanity.
Art runs through January 28, 2024, at Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Yasmina Reza; Translation: Christopher Hampton; Director: Kimberly Senior; Scenic Design: Brian Sidney Bembridge; Costume Design: Raquel Barreto; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design/Composer: Mikhail Fiksel; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Vocal Coach: Keely Wolter; Resident Casting Director: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Assistant Director: Faith Hart; Stage Manager: Chris Schweiger; Assistant Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter.
Cast: Robert O. Berdahl (Serge), Patrick Sabongui (Marc), Max Wojtanowicz (Yvan).