by Yasmina Reza
Directed by William Joseph Barnes
(Original direction by Matthew Warchus)
Starring Scott Hylands, Stephen Ouimette and Richard Poe
Royal Alexandra Theatre until Dec. 18
(416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

 ART, the internationally-acclaimed play by Yasmina Reza, has just opened at the Royal Alex for a lengthy run. (It follows its initial run at the Manitoba Theatre Theatre.) This three-actor comedy of manners, both good and bad, runs 90 intermissionless minutes and spends much of its time focussed on a white-on-white painting, unframed, that purports to be a marvellous investment.

When I saw the play in New York, the week after it had won the Tony Award as best play of the 1998 season, I was most struck by the fact that the audience laughed with little pause to breathe. My reaction is based on the fact that, although I admired the writing and the stylish production, I didn't laugh a great deal. Nor did I find myself drawn into the discussions of any of the characters however well they were performed. (The cast of Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina was expert, charming and the quintessence of 'well oiled,' in the best sense of Broadway-style ensemble acting.) But admiration, while rare enough, is not why I go to the theatre. (Street of Blood, as unlikely a point of comparison as you could imagine, is not as clean in its writing, yet Burkett's ability to draw me in goes far beyond cleanliness of character or precision of language–his one-man show has been extended again, now closing November 13.)

The Reza play revolves around three men, all good friends who spend much of their leisure time together. We meet them just after Serge has purchased a piece of art that cost him 200,000 francs. Marc, the eldest of the trio, is stunned and appalled by his friend's purchase, claiming that the white-on-white, unframed canvas is nothing but 'a piece of white shit.' Soon enough, Yvan, the least settled member of the group, joins them and he becomes a fulcrum in the ensuing debate, a debate which turns quickly into argument and, thereafter, into admissions of betrayed friendship and loyalty.

Returning to my first reaction to the play, I fairly assumed that the New York audience hooted through the evening because they knew they were at a high-cultural event, reinforced by superior reviews and the Tony Award. That may have been the case, though this week's opening audience, far too large to be a legislated claque, was no different. This audience–and we know how Canadian audiences are not touted for unabashed outpourings in the absence of hype and Big Names to lead the cheers–responded with delight and hearty laughter of the spontaneous variety. Once again, I was mystified, but it's often gratifying to be in the company of theatre goers who are having a damn good time, especially when there aren't sets to applaud, overamplification to endure and lighting that manages to declare, "Stand and applaud or we're not leaving the stage!"

The current production is an exact replica of the original, designed and directed by that creative team, but the cast is not in the same style as what I recall from a year ago. Gone is the Broadway presentational delivery and nowhere is this production steeped in the school of wait-for-the-laugh-however-long-it-takes-to-get-here. Instead, we have a company of three men who play with one another and include the audience without catering to them. Scott Hylands, as Marc, begins cautiously and tends to rely on vocal technique more than he should. He takes a long time to warm up, or perhaps I took a long time to listen to what he was saying rather than how he was saying it. Stephen Ouimette, playing Yvan, is back on stage in a role that he is happy to play with and not to conquer. His recent years at the Stratford Festival provided him some of the great roles in classical repertoire, but they also appeared to encourage him to become a Big Actor. Richard Poe, as Serge, is entirely charming and wholly credible as the doctor-turned-patron. He handles dialogue with ease and a speed that never obscures but never overstates the brittle dialogue, either. (Poe is very skilled, but why did this production cast an American actor? The character's age and range are well within our borders. Is this too chauvinistic? Is the argument of Canadian-American threatening to become a tired one?)

Very slick direction by William Joseph Barnes, from the original London and New York productions by Matthew Warchus, scenic design by Mark Thompson, and sound and music by Mic Pool and Gary Yershon, respectively, contribute tremendously to the evening's cohesion and pretty-packaging.

The play's translator, Christopher Hampton, adds class and definition to Reza's bemused take on the actualized male.

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