By Karen Isaacs
Art by Yasmina Reza which is getting a fine production at Westport Country Playhouse through May 29 was a hit on Broadway in 1998, winning the Tony as Best Play.
Looking at it today, particularly in the context of her subsequent play God of Carnage, I see the connections to that work, it less about contemporary art and more about power in friendships. What happens when the power dynamic in a friendship shifts? Can the friendship continue? At what cost?
Artistic Director Mark Lamos has paired to plays that are ostensible about art to play in repertory with different casts. Art plays on the even days and the second, Red, plays on the odd days. Each play, Lamos points out, explores the relationship between men and art: making art, viewing art, collecting art. It also points out how art can be used as validation or a status symbol.
It is interesting that each of these plays features an all-male cast, though Art is written by a female playwright.
In Art, which is set in Paris, Serge, a dentist has spent 200,000 Euros (about $228,000) on a large contemporary painting by a well-known artist. He wants to show it off to his two best friends, Marc and Yvan. The painting, which we see, looks like a large white canvas with no visible patterns. Serge states that there are various lines on the painting in a variety of white colors.
Marc is the first of the friends to see the painting. He thinks it is ridiculous, especially that someone would spend that much money for it. He describes the painting as “a piece of white shit.” Serge is successful but not wealthy. But Marc is also upset that Serrge made this purchase without consulting him. Very quickly, we realize that Marc believes he is the arbitrator of all that is cultural or good. He doesn’t like contemporary things, so Serge should not like them either; or if he must like them, at least not to buy them.
Marc and the third friend, Yvan, who is both uncertain and eager to please, discuss the painting. Yvan obviously wants to avoid confrontation, so it is clear that he has told Serge that he likes the painting, but agrees with Marc that the cost was ridiculous.
As the men continue to meet, it gets even more contentious, with Marc and Serge nearly coming to blows and Yvan trying to mediate by waffling between the two.
In the end, Serge finds a way to salvage the longt erm friendship, but you suspect it will flare up again soon.
This play is less about whether the painting or contemporary art in general is meaningful or worthwhile. On one hand it is about the person who collects art or other things for the status and affirmation it provides. The person who may be swayed to like something only because it is valuable or trendy.
It is also about friendship. The three men have been friends for 15 years and the pattern of their relationship is well established. Marc, who may be a few years old, is the dominant one in the group. He is very sure of himself and his opinions. He wants the affirmation of the others. But now, several things are threatening the group. Yvan is getting married; he is ambivalent about it and seems already under the thumb of his wife and her mother. Serge is,, with his interest in art, also stepping away into new groups and asserting independent thinking.
Like any leader, Marc will fight to retain his position of dominance, even if it means hurling insults and demeaning comments.
Mark Lamos has done an excellent job directing this piece and letting us see the various dynamics occurring. His multi-ethnic casting adds another dimension to the play and the possible motivations of the characters. He has three fine actors to work with, as well as a spacious living room of an apartment – sometimes, Marc’s, sometimes Serge’s – designed by Allen Moyer. He is added by the lighting by Matthew Richards and the sound design by David Budries.
Benton Greene gives us a Marc who is arrogant in certainty that his opinions are the correct ones. He stalks around Serge’s apartment as though he owned it. Sean Dugan has to portray the indecisive, eager to please, Yvan. It is to his credit that we not only like this character but feel sorry for him; at times I wanted to tell him to call off the up-coming wedding.
John Skelley is adding to his fine performances at Westport with Serge. At times I wished he was a little stronger, but you see a man sure of his opinions but not wanting to have them get in the way of the friendship.
As you leave the theater following this one act production, you will certainly have much to consider and discuss.
Art is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.