A Play by Yasmina Reza
Translated from French by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman
Sets and lights, Justin Townsend, Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Sound, David Remedios
New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theater.
Through Feb. 5. Tickets $28-$58, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
“Does this dress make me look fat?”
“How do you like my new hairdo/cut?”
“What do you think of this artwork I just bought?”
Potential landmines. All of them. And in the case of “ART”, playing at the New Repertoy Theatre, that last query leads to questions about three character’s sense of artistic sensibility and their entire value systems. The question becomes that patch of black ice that turns a routine drive around the block into an out of control spiraling spin that changes their lives.
On the surface the premise is great for any of us who’ve ever walked into a pricey gallery, seen a universally acclaimed work of art and thought, “That’s art?” or “What the hell is that?” or “That’s worth $200,000?”
“ART” would probably stand up as an entertaining play with just this concept on its palette. But wow, within ten minutes, the purchase of a piece of art starts plumbing the nature and complexity of friendship between the three men in the cast.
Serge (Robert Walsh) invites his friend Marc (Robert Pemberton) to see his newly purchased painting, what appears to be a 3’ by 4’ canvas of pure white. And it’s the work of an artist highly regarded in the rarified atmosphere of the art world, an artist Marc hasn’t heard of.
Serge paid 200,000 francs for it, he loves it. It’s not clear whether he loves it because of it’s been painted by a famous artist, or that it cost a ton of money and he could afford it, or that his status as a discerning aesthete has been upped a notch.
Marc’s assessment? “It’s a piece of shit.” Game on. Their mutual friend Yvan (Doug Lockwood) is drawn into the drama and the 90 minutes of the play become a funny and touching intellectual and emotional free for all between the three men who’ve been friends for 15 years.
If you enjoy theater with smart, edgy, dialogue and watching actors totally inhabit their roles, this is a play for you. There’s a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” scorched earth quality to the way the three long time friends go deep into past resentments, withholds, and petty judgments to bolster their arguments. It’s hard to fathom that a night of infighting like this would not incinerate normal friendships.
Humor helps. Aside from one-liner zingers, the three actors use every device in the book to ham up and diffuse their fusillades aimed at their friend’s soft spots. Their snarky asides, eye rolling, facial contortions that convey sarcasm, scorn, disbelief (mock or real), and body language had the audience guffawing often.
While each man described the painting, I couldn’t help recalling the reviews of wines, the ones hailing the notes of plum, apricot, whatever, in the taste or “nose” of the wine. Where do they come up with these comparisons? One of the arguments of art appreciation is how a piece of art makes you feel, which is as entirely unpredictable as that hint of plum or apricot that might show up in your next glass of Shiraz. But I digress.
Serge (Robert Walsh), Yvan (Doug Lockwood), Marc (Robert Pemberton), and the White on White painting.Photo by Andrew Brilliant
The question remains, whether considering ART or Shiraz: is it good? The average Joe, like Yvan in the play, is satisfied to go with a thumbs up or thumbs down. He has enough drama going on in his life to be bothered with the intellectual strain of deep aesthetic analysis. Serge and Marc, nearly come to blows. For them, and others like them, “understanding” and “appreciating” the art for the right reasons is paramount, a badge of honor and intellectual superiority.
Who are the gatekeepers of what is “ART”? What does it mean about us if we think a work of art is a ‘piece of shit’, not a masterpiece. Are we stupid, uniformed, uneducated? Any of us who’ve trotted through an art gallery or museum has had these questions.
The play was inspired when its author, a Parisian named Yasmina Resa, witnessed two friends feud because of their diametrically opposed views of a monochromatic piece of art one had purchased. Originally written in French and translated for the stage, it’s a wonderful observation on the complex nature of social relationships, the factors that determine self worth, and the mystery of the value of a piece of art
There are moments in the play that come across as a PBS show about modern art but they're in service of the characters who have a stake in the arguments. There are no definitive answers but solidly opposing points of view. Ms. Reza leaves it up to us to decide where we stand. The final scene left me feeling that the author was not content with a soft landing and wanted to keep some edge showing. She succeeded.