The painting is white. All white. Though if you look at it long enough, you can see diagonal lines, close together, running across it: maybe the paint is textured, thicker in some places than others, maybe in fact there are different shades of white being used by the artist. All that's certain is that Serge (Victor Garber) feels enough of a connection to it that he has spent 200,000 francs to own it. Which, for some reason, pisses off his friend Marc (Alan Alda)...although to merely say he's pissed his to diminish the divinity of his outrage...or is it rage-rage at being left out? If so, that's not a concept he can articulate right away. What comes first is an aggressive need to justify his reaction to their mutual friend Yvan (Alfred Molina), who is neither the aesthete that Serge is, nor the self-appointed guardian of intellectually acceptable good taste that Marc is. No, Yvan is--as Douglas Adams might put it--just this guy, you know?, and he has his own problems...such as an impending marriage to a woman of whom neither Marc nor Serge approves.
But through debating this painting--this blessed and damned painting--all this and more comes out; that "more" including suppressed hostilities, frustrations, insecurities, and the various other perverse subtleties that can inform deep friendships.
The play is "Art" by French author Yasmina Reza and it is as rare and invigorating as a fine painting itself. Not only is it scintillating and different, but the central metaphor provided by the painting--and the trio's reactions to it--is so loaded that the play can be debated as hotly by attendees as the canvas is debated onstage. (My companion of the evening was a good friend of a decade's standing, and we were--briefly, but notably--at each other's throats when the play was over. And both of us loved it.)
While it is certainly easy to apportion praise to Ms. Reza for the play's stunning and remarkable architecture, it's a little more difficult--without access to a literal translation--to know how much of the brilliantly dialogued and sharply observed "guy stuff" originates with her. There is a palpable, and quite authentic boys' club "feel" to the proceedings, that may be--and probably is, at least in part--attributable to British playwright Christopher Hampton, credited with the "translation." (As you may know, "translation" in this context tends to be a misnomer, especially when the by-line belongs to a scribe who is himself a noteworthy dramatist; usually the term means "adaptation"--at least to the extent that the translator brings his own sensibility to the mix, his own flair for language, idiom and rhythm...to say nothing of his idea of what the characters are like. He interprets the play just as assuredly as the characters interpret the white rectangle.)
In any event, the words, thoughts and concepts are brought to full-blooded, wholly convincing life by director Matthew Warchus (who directed the London production) and a trio of actors who could not be more splendidly cast--they seem to be playing extensions of themselves. Who has not paused to note that Alda's famous liberalism comes replete with an irritating sanctimony? Who better for earnest sincerity than Garber? As for sweet befuddlement...any who saw "Molly Sweeney" two years ago know that such is easily in Mr. Molina's line of country. The stage is awash with the highest levels of charisma, white-collar testosterone and unassailable humanism. And the connection between the three, the illusion that there is a profound, shared history among them is utterly convincing.
Add to this a magificently spare design by Mark Thompson which combines with Hugh Vanstone's evocative lighting to keep the canvas always present in our minds even when it is offstage, and you have the elements of a genuine event, one that will be talked about for years, and remembered vividly for decades.
Worth the wait, the price, the mulling over a glorious aftertaste...and, like any masterpiece, a second look...
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