How do you make
something out of nothing? Does the answer come from without, impressed on some blank slate - a tabula rasa - does it
come preformed - from within - or is it some Kantian combination? This deceptively simple yet complex question and the answers
lie at the heart of Yasmina Reza's 1990s award-winning play (Molière, Olivier, Tony) Art, now enjoying
a highly entertaining run at the Pittsburgh Public Theater (to 6/27).
out of whole cloth or, if you like, stretched (primed) canvas, were a staple on Seinfeld and Ms. Reza has worked
similar wonders with this comic script. Much of the fun comes not only from the kooky characters, who find a kind of
catharsis in their ongoing conflicts, but the clever send-up of the pretensions of the middle class, which she skewers, taking
a blast at the contemporary art scene and lit-crit crowd along the way. When have you last heard an aeronautical engineer,
a dermatologist, and stationery salesman spouting views on art theory and literary criticism?
Marc (Rob Breckenridge) is a stress puppy, living against the grain, who mellows out on homeopathy while best bud
Serge (Darren Eliker) is coolly analytical, finding comfort in the wisdom of the Stoics (Seneca's The Happy Life
is his favorite). Both use doormat Yvan (Harry Bouvy) who serves as a backdrop for their many proxy battles. Yvan
is everybody's favorite project - exuding vulnerability - and punching bag.
is set-up from the get-go. Serge has seemingly jumped off a cliff with the purchase, at a staggering sum, of an all-white
painting, which Marc loathes; both enlist Yvan to sound each other out and make their case. Moreover, it develops that
the engineer sees himself as something of a mentor to the intellectually curious physician, who is viewed by Marc, with this
act of purchase, as an arriviste. This painting represents not only a challenge to his values, but his authority.
Director Ted Pappas' fast-paced production is delivered presto, suggesting we're moving
and talking in these times faster than we can think. A darker play than I previously remember (this is my third different
show), the director teases out the sharp edges of the rapier-like dialogue and lays bare many other layers of meaning I'd
earlier missed. Leaving matters of aesthetics and mentoring aside, which don't stand out as much for me now, I never
thought of friendship as an overtly aggressive act, let alone a form (perhaps the highest?) of commoditization. Your
acquisitions define you, but those that you make through friendship and love count most. Best choose wisely. Marc
also sees himself as lead dog, the only position for him in the pack. Both he and Serge are more alike intellectually,
that's why this contest is fought so viciously, though the engineer is closer to Yvan emotionally: they'd prefer people
for comfort, however limited, whereas the divorced physician opts for the object.
is a well-made, actor-friendly play; just about any competent performer with the right direction can carry it off, I think,
but Mr. Pappas has assembled a talented crew and run them through their paces. Mr. Bouvy is well-cast as Yvan, bouncing
between the front-runners, when he's not fending off attacks from the rear (women are pulling the reins in all their lives).
His several-minute monologue, delivered in multiple characters with clarity and comic emphasis, is a showstopper - that
alone is worth the price of admission. His views on authenticity, conveyed via his shrink, a comic riddle for the ages, will
have you howling.
Mr. Breckenridge captures all the uncertainty and
malevolence his arm-chair iconoclast of a character can muster, while Mr. Eliker's Serge, got up as a Chekovian figure
of sorts, goes right for the neck with every verbal assessment.
productions are known for their design and this one's eye-catching with an exceptional minimalist set by Anne Mundell,
favoring pastels (green-brown-purple-blue, unfortunately not seen in the photos above), and delineating the space shared with
three diverse chairs, canvases and a table. The director contributes his own costume design for the actors, which the
lighting of Phil Monat wonderfully accents and effectively singles out during their telling soliloquies. The sound of
Zach Moore's upbeat jazz selection emphasizes the vibe.
show drifted a bit into overdrive (I saw it on the 24th), with some loss of meaning for the audience, crossing
the finish line in a brisk 70 minutes. And the male bonding is not something we see on this side of the pond where Mamet
and LaButte are the unapologetic interpreters (no guys are getting together for a movie and a low-fat meal in their worlds),
but not improbable in the French tradition. And as old friends, this cast is a bit of a stretch. But in these
frenetic days with everyone looking (and acting) younger than they seem, the blemishes fade into ... Art.
By the sleight-of-hand
ending, in which everyone saves face, the search for identity will reveal itself for what it is: a tale of self-imposed exile,
where each of us writes his or her own story, and emerges victorious.
Highly Recommended, 3 ½+ hands (out of 5).
© John F. Glass June 25, 2010 - All rights