Regional Reviews: St. Louis
My previous take on the play was mainly that it is a testing of friendships, cast into turmoil by this very expensive riddle of a painting, that leads to comical violence and a rather miraculous kind of transcendence. And that's a perfectly standard reading. But now, in this newest staging, with three splendid actors and an organic approach to directing, all the gears and workings seem polished and exposed. Underneath all that, it suddenly becomes a play about the cruel art of human appraisal, the only cure for which is the gentle art of human relationships. Each character, on or off-stage, is ruthlessly put up for auction and found wanting, until it nearly destroys them all. One wife's gesture (unseen by us, her waving away cigarette smoke) is described, laden with meaning, very much as seen in a painting, and not at all to her advantage.
Occasionally, actor Ben Ritchie (as Serge) holds up the painting like a large mirror for his friends to gaze into. Perhaps it proves to be a hideous cure for what ails them. Serge is polished, condescending and avuncular, and yet allows the usually stoic actor more range than he's often given. His gesture, of using the white canvas as a tool of reflection, seems an inspiration of the rehearsal process, and reveals the play's structural pentimento: the drama beneath the drama, of the painful growth of the characters themselves. I don't recall sensing this in previous mountings.
Serge's two old friends, Marc (Stephen Peirick) and Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier), have met nice young women and are in the process of settling down, dooming Serge to be third wheel, at least till now, now that he's married the art world. Marc narrates the play, his outrage over the mad purchase of seemingly counterfeit art propelling his indoctrination of Yvan, to hate it too. In Mr. Goldmeier's interpretation, Yvan is the eager-to-please little brother of the group, clownish and eagerly malleable enough to accidentally keep the conflict alive between the other two. It makes him painfully vulnerable in a way one can only be with lifelong friends. Each actor finds a mysterious path to his character and to finally unlocking the play for all of us. Till the last 15 minutes or so, the mood is often arid and acerbic, which perhaps helps reveal their appraisals of each other, and of the off-stage characters, more starkly.
Even if you know the end (which is slightly different here, from other stagings) it's still uplifting and surprisingly enlightening all over again. The usual tendency to Americanize the characters, to make them hell-bent on being likable, is carefully avoided, so we can concentrate on the deep structure of the story. It is art, unearthed.
The very accessible English translation is by Christopher Hampton.
Art runs through August 21, 2021, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. It's outdoors, on classroom chairs, for socially distanced pairs or small groups (or "pods"). Reservations are required, but masks need not be worn while you are seated. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.