It's not often that a play is so invigorating that each time the cast changes, the event changes so intriguingly that you can't wait to see it again...but Yasmina Reza's "Art" is now on its third trio of actors and the potential to fascinate seems nowhere near ending. Partly (as I wrote the last time the cast changed) that's because the play itself is so stark: it's a serio-comic examination of a male friendship (three men actually) that is tested to its limit when one of the friends spends a fortune to acquire a painting whose canvas is all white. (For a more detailed analysis of the play, the opening week review is still online in these cyber-pages: link below.) The physical backdrop is no less "blank" than the canvas, so the actors are in a unique position to "fill" it. But just as important are the defining idiosyncrasies of friendship--as the minutiæ of companionship's intimacy is so exposed, the play cannot help but expose the idiosyncrasies of its players as well.
With the new cast, "Art" has regained something it lost. Its second company, a trio of splendid Britons--Brian Cox, Henry Goodman--seemed to have created three finely wrought character portraits--while the Americans who preceded them (Alan Alda, Victor Garber, Alfred Molina) seemed to be extrapolating characters from their own personæ. (I hasten to add: for all I know, the reverse may be the case in reality; what I'm describing here is the impression left upon the viewer.) It was a fascinating trade-off, and it was the difference between the presentation of a brilliantly acted play...and the ambiance of eavesdropping.
With the three "new" Americans, still under the direction of Matthew Warchus, we're looking through the keyhole again (once again with the American version of the script), the trio having masterfully bonded their own personæ to the roles: As Marc--arguably the "main" character, who resists the painting most strongly--the formidable and powerful Judd Hirsch gives it an interesting spin; not naturally possessing the effete qualities of Alda and Cox, he doesn't even try for that; his snobbery is a very matter-of-fact thing, and his portrait of a man wounded by his friend's taste is almost touching in its confusion and desperation to override the situation. As Serge, Joe Morton plays the owner of the canvas as a man who seems to have shed a layer of repression--and resents his friend for being unable to celebrate the accomplishment with him. (Since at least one magazine article has already considered this in detail, it bears noting that Mr. Morton is the first black actor in the role--possibly the first in any English language production of the play--and proves the play to be one of the very few that not only survives, but supports color-blind casting, without that moment of perception adjustment that must often be made consciously, before the willing suspension of disbelief. In fact, as Morton himself pointed out in an interview, there is a tacit resonance to Serge's response to the painting, when he makes his assertion that the color scheme isn't entirely white.)
As Yvan, the beleaguered and henpecked friend between them, George Wendt (who just completed a stint as Yvan in London, where he costarred with Stacy [Marc] Keach and David [Serge] Dukes) is, more conspicuously than anyone in the role has been before, the audience favorite. It isn't just that he's terribly sweet and adorably vulnerable, as the role requires...but because of his style and particular comic imprimatur (remember, he was Norm on "Cheers"), he makes the role something of a physical tour de force as well; whether by accident or by design, the portly Mr. Wendt lets size and shape add dimension to the subtext that informs behavior. And his show-stopping monologue--the set-piece of the role--is especially, gratifyingly manic.
The current crew are on board for four months. (It is rumored that, thereafter, the "Frasier" triumvirate--Kelsey Grammar, David Hyde Pierce and John Mahoney--will take over, though no official announcement has yet been made.) If you've not seen the play before, it couldn't be in better hands. If you have seen it before...there couldn't be three better reasons to see it again. Enjoy...
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