It's inevitable that Theatre Three's production of Art would be greeted with high expectations by those of us who saw the December 1999 touring production that Dallas Summer Musicals brought to the Majestic Theatre. With its sometimes vicious wit and uncomfortably recognizable close-up of the inequalities and manipulations of three lifelong adult friends, Christopher Hampton's translation of Yasmina Reza's bleak comedy would seem as unlikely to get financing for a national tour as, well, a musical about a Jewish man taking the fall for a black rapist and being lynched in the South. (That would be Parade, Dallas Summer Musical's other, more recent, and even braver imported money loser.) A colleague escorted his reluctant father to Reza's play--a fellow not notoriously interested in either theater or painting--and reported that the older man was engrossed in the Matthew Warchus-directed sniping among Serge (Cotter Smith), a dermatologist turned art connoisseur; Marc (Judd Hirsch), his mentor and a merciless cynic; and Yvan (Jack Willis), their weepy, easily confused pudding of a comrade. The meltdown that occurred after Serge buys an all-white painting, winning the aggressive scorn of Marc, was hot enough to singe the eyebrows of ticketbuyers.
I won't dwell on the painful beauty of that production here, but I must mention it to help explain my disappointment in T3's curiously cast, two-dimensional mounting. One worshipful critic who saw the show in London went off on a feckless but not unmerited Freudian interpretation of Art, positing arrogant art arriviste Serge as the ego; scolding and ultrarational Marc as the superego; and big needy baby Yvan as the id, all grappling over the creative process. What's lost in T3's in-the-round staging, directed by Terry Dobson, is the sense of these three very distinct forces operating within a larger symbiotic framework, be it a single psyche or a longtime friendship.
Art did earn some deserved laughs on opening night, mostly because Jac Alder's impatiently fey acting style is well-suited to the snide, emotionless bomb-thrower that is Marc. But he and Jeff Schmidt as bespectacled Serge and Kyle McClaran as Yvan spent the evening tossing catty comments at each other without having established the context of years shared together. When that happens, the bickering turns into the cutting and shredding of a bond that should be prized above such a petty difference of opinion, and the show's resonant tragedy kicks in. One simple but insurmountable factor here--Alder appears old enough to be Schmidt's grandfather, and Schmidt looks even younger than his real, not-quite-30 years. If your eyes are functioning normally, it's simply not possible to suspend disbelief over this chasm of a casting issue.
The bigger problem in T3's Art is McClaran as Yvan, the friend who's not as clever, not as accomplished, and therefore desperate to curry favor from the other two. I'd say that the brilliant performance of Willis (a former Dallas Theater Center ensemble member under Adrian Hall) in 1999's touring Art would eclipse any follow-up efforts, but even if I'd never seen Willis, it'd be obvious to me that McClaran is out of control here. In addition to being saddled with an inferiority complex that Marc and Serge happily feed, Yvan is about to marry a woman he doesn't love to enter a family business he doesn't care about. His buddies are his only source of support at this moment in his life; when he takes both sides of the white painting debate, and they descend on him like leopards on a wounded antelope, the injury being inflicted is palpable. Or should be. Director Dobson lets McLaran bellow and babble and whine shamelessly for too much of the show leading up to Yvan's climactic monologue about his wedding plans, so there's no sense of Yvan breaking in those final moments. McClaran doesn't break, he floods; you pray that no expensive front-row footwear donned for a night at the theater gets caught in the rolling tide.