‘Art’ challenges modernist mindset

The antagonist: white canvas. Yasmina Reza’s three-man play Art, performed at the Clark on Friday evening, is about a simple painting. Its simplicity is the conflict. The painting is a 5-feet-by-4-feet piece with a white background and a few white, or off-white – or are they ochre? – lines across it. Reza cleverly mocks differing opinions about modern art while exploring how a person’s values can affect and even ruin his friendships. One of the reasons the piece is enjoyable is its familiarity: the three characters are easily recognizable archetypes.

Friday’s performance was especially impressive because it was a reading performed after only four hours of rehearsal. None of the three actors – John Bedford Lloyd, Campbell Scott and James Waterston – had been in Art before, and only two of them had ever seen it. Yet they were able to embody their characters with conviction.

One of the three, Marc, played by Waterson, is a typical traditionalist – he doesn’t understand how a friend he respects so much can spend an enormous sum on what he unabashedly refers to as “white shit.” His thoughts are grounded in the concrete, the observable and the rational, and Marc fails to conceive of any other way to view the painting. His suspicions about the sincerity of his friend Serge’s admiration of the painting reveals what Serge refers to as his “narrow-mindedness.” Like many critics of contemporary art, Marc believes Serge’s real motive is the cachet of buying a work by a reputed artist. Marc criticizes his friend for buying into the modern art culture.

Scott plays Serge, a more open-minded thinker who appreciates the lack of rational explanation in contemporary art. However, I couldn’t help sympathizing with Marc’s analysis that Serge longs to be a connoisseur in a somewhat snobby field. Audiences, especially of this generation, are familiar with that character – the man who loves the alternative because it is alternative, the indie because it is indie and the abstract because, as Yvan points out, “nothing great… has ever been born of rational argument.”

Lloyd’s Yvan, then, serves as the mediator in the friendship triangle. He rarely has strong opinions, or he at least adjusts them to please both friends. Yvan’s frequent indifference and non-confrontational personality also contribute to his role of providing comic relief. While all the characters have funny lines, Yvan’s occasional bursts of hysteria and anxiety, exacerbated by his friend’s comments about his upcoming wedding that they consider a disastrous mistake, provoked fits of laughter from the audience.

The greatest merit of Art is its keen combination of sobriety and humor. While the issues played out are serious and realistic, the insults and give-and-take are witty and amusing. Reza creates a comedy out of a common conflict of modern society. Christopher Hampton, who translated the play from its original French, also deserves credit. Even in a different language, the vocabulary is sophisticated and the ideas are well articulated. Serge’s rants in defense of his painting sharply refute his cynical friend’s suggestions. Repeated lines and themes, such as Serge’s facetious remark to Marc to “read Seneca” to understand the values of modern art, create a smooth progression of various “scenes” in the one-act performance.

During the question-and-answer session following the play, the actors were asked how they so quickly learned the appropriate timing and how to react to one another. They credited the direction of Justin Waldman, artistic associate of the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF). Bedford, Scott and Waterson all expressed high regards for WTF, with which they have all worked in the past. WTF usually runs summer performances; the full house in the dead of the winter spoke to the respect felt for the organization and the Clark in the community.

The actors’ ability to engage their audience during a read-through of the script without the additional persuasions of a set, props or, perhaps most impressively, even movement also attested to their talent and the strength of Reza’s script. With only their tone, gestures and facial expressions, the men commanded and directed the audience’s emotions. One minute elicited a series of laughs; the next provoked a dramatic silence in the house. A man to the side of the stage read stage directions to make the narrative more comprehensible, but most of the directions were not fully acted out.

An important difference between a reading and a full-production play is that the basis of the story – the painting – is intangible. But from the characters’ varied descriptions, we are able to imagine what it looks like. Perhaps the play was effective as a reading because this issue parallels the one in the story. What a work of art “looks like,” and what it means depends on viewers’ interpretations, not the object itself. This concept is especially true regarding modern art, which often has less tangible subjects and less clearly defined meaning. Through an astute commentary on modern art and a dry sense of humor, Reza’s Art explored the compromises that friendship requires.

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