The Art of the matter ...

... is you should have seen it

One of the most impressive things about Art isn't that it won a Tony and an Olivier and an Evening Standard, blah blah blah, but that the script has legs long enough to carry it across the world. Since Yasmina Reza's play debuted in France in the mid-'90s, it has been performed in multiple languages in 25 countries. And, of course, to see a comedy this smart and sober and ultimately heartbreaking get a major American tour is almost as impressive, because Stateside theater producers are usually wont to pitch their wagons full of celebrity and sentiment a la The Gin Game or Love Letters before they're willing to buy the horses that'll pull them from city to city.

Critics have already identified the near-universal appeal of this show about the implosion of three longtime friendships over a piece of modern art as the very democratic lure of the tabula rasa, the canvas waiting to be filled with whatever you want to see. This is an understandable claim, as the painting at the center of the play's nasty squabbling is composed of white brush strokes on a white background, but I believe it's too reflexive and therefore misguided. Art draws you in not by letting you choose what you want to see, but by confronting you, irresistibly and methodically and with a curiously tender mercilessness, with what you'd rather ignore: how friendships are often built on self-deception and dependency.

The theater, movies, TV, and pop music batter us with reminders of the impermanence of romantic love. But the popular assumption is that if we choose lovers by need, we choose friends by want: True friendship is widely regarded as the last bastion of sanity in human connection. Playwright Reza and Christopher Hampton, who wrote the English-language adaptation of Art, dab at this belief with firm and gentle strokes until it disappears.

What were friends for? From left, Jack Willis, Judd Hirsch, and Cotter Smith debate the merits of Art.
What were friends for? From left, Jack Willis, Judd Hirsch, and Cotter Smith debate the merits of Art.

And Dallas Summer Musicals' Contemporary Broadway Series brought a nimble and vivid New York version of Art to our city for a mere six days (it closed last Sunday). As directed by Brit Matthew Warchus, who helmed the Broadway production, the touring play arrived with all its tap-dance banter perfectly synchronized. Big touring musicals often bring you faded stars recycled as musical troupers (Petula Clark in Sunset Boulevard), which gives the whole affair a certain sense of overexertion, but the Contemporary Broadway Series boasted a big touring dark comedy with a true stage veteran who'd been recycled as a TV star -- Taxi's Judd Hirsch.

Hirsch doesn't have marquee presence, but he has a theater professional's focus and brittle commitment to the role he's playing. He was marvelously dogged and unself-conscious as Marc, a tactless man with a bullshit detector that gets tripped rather too easily. In other words, while it's true that Marc doesn't suffer fools gladly, he spends altogether too much time interpreting the behavior of those around him as foolish. As the saying goes, the harder you smell, the more people stink. And Marc catches a whiff of credulity when longtime but younger buddy Serge (Cotter Smith) pays 200,000 francs for a 5-by-4-foot painting that's all white.

Serge insists, of course, that there are different shades of white, and that if you search the picture hard enough, you can see hints of red and yellow. But Marc can't look at the painting, because he can't stop staring at Serge in hostile disbelief. The older man condemns the younger one as a victim of the relentless scam that is modern art; the younger one shoots back that the older one is an arrogant neo-classicist with blind disdain for all innovation in his time. Things start to deteriorate rapidly from there.

But the real pivotal character in Art, the one who raises it above mere amusing aesthetic discourse to a truly haunting look at the inequality of adult friendships, is Yvan (Jack Willis), the third friend who gets caught between Marc and Serge's cannonball verbal exchanges and is eventually beaten down by them. Yvan is not as successful as the others (he's marrying a woman he probably doesn't love to get into the stationery business), perhaps not as smart, certainly not as self-aware in his cultivation of worldly tastes (Marc viciously dismisses a painting in Yvan's living room as motel art, even though it was painted by the owner's father). But he has created a niche in their lives by his sheer voracious need to please.

Marc and Serge attempt to use Yvan as a weapon against each other, trying to get him to defend and attack the all-white painting. But he can be stretched only so far until he snaps, and when he is no longer of use to the other two, they turn on him. The episode with the white painting, we are meant to see, has very little to do with disagreements over modern art and everything to do with reflecting the dynamic that has driven this trio for years. Marc and Serge have forged a friendship based on a mutual suspicion that each is superior in intellect and professional and romantic achievements to the other; this philosophical disagreement exposes that.

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