American Stage buddies up with Art

Plus: New Stage’s debut, Maybe, Baby, It’s You!, deconstructs relationships.

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click to enlarge WHITE GUYS’ PROBLEMS: From left, Ricky Wayne, Gavin Hawk and Brian Shea nearly come to blows over a painting in Art. - Chad Jacobs
Chad Jacobs
WHITE GUYS’ PROBLEMS: From left, Ricky Wayne, Gavin Hawk and Brian Shea nearly come to blows over a painting in Art.

Two notable comedies have recently opened on Bay area stages, and both are worthy of your attention.

Yasmina Reza’s Art should really be titled Friendship, since that’s its true subject from first moment to last. The play is something else too: a spectacular opportunity for local talents Brian Shea, Ricky Wayne and Gavin Hawk to show their chops as comic actors for 85 uninterrupted minutes. Hawk is delightful as Serge, who just bought an all-white painting for $200,000, and Wayne is crackerjack as Marc, who thinks his friend has been duped — self-duped as well — and needs to be brought back to his senses. And then there’s the extraordinary Shea, whose Yvan is a waffling conciliator with a neurotic streak as wide as a Franz Kline wall painting. As these three buddies try to determine whether their friendship can survive the arrival of the White Rorschach Test, we are treated to some of the best comic writing on the contemporary stage.

Unfortunately, the pleasure is mostly superficial: Art doesn’t have much to say besides “Friendships are complex organisms that require care.” It’s certainly not a reliable response to abstract painting — its attitude is philistine at best — and while it gives its three actors the chance to display all their technique, there’s finally not much more going on here than in a typical episode of Big Bang Theory. Still, Reza has the power to provoke some great big belly laughs, and it’s mildly cathartic to watch the three comrades reach their own modus vivendi. Call Art an unusually eloquent sitcom, and then sit back and enjoy yourself.

Hawk, Wayne, and Shea make the enjoyment easy. Hawk — who appears with Wayne in a monthly improv show at American Stage — plays Serge as a fresh-faced, not very complicated follower of intellectual fashion, a latecomer to the party but enormously happy with himself for having finally seen the light. Hawk’s Serge is a naïf, and he looks at his new painting like a child who’s acquired a really neat bike and can hardly believe his good luck. Wayne as Marc is just the opposite: surly and emotional and not only amazed that Serge has fallen for a hoax, but absolutely opposed to letting Yvan pretend that he shares Serge’s bad taste. Wayne’s Marc is resentful, too, that he’s lost his position as Serge’s mentor, and with it his exclusive privileges over his friend’s mind. Then there’s Shea as Yvan, the ultimate schnook: nearly incapable of standing up for himself, of taking a firm position, of risking other people’s displeasure. Shea’s performance is highly stylized, but it’s so precise and detailed, you can only wonder at the expertise behind it. Todd Olson and Michael Edwards direct skillfully, and Jerid Fox’s fine living room set is sharply modern and attractive. Adrin Erra Puente designed the three distinct sets of clothes.

Is Art good art? Well, it’s good comedy anyway, and that’ll have to do. See it for the three top comics who make it shine. These guys have a ball working with one another, and it shows.

Tenderness and trouble. Imagine the scene: A local yokel named Paul comes to a restaurant to meet his blind date for the evening, a black-haired harpy named Medea. Paul is enthusiastic and does his best to make friendly small talk with his new acquaintance. Trouble is, she’s not very pleasant. When Paul cautiously suggests that she may suffer from a little anger problem, she shouts, “Have you ever lain shrieking in the agony of childbirth, having your body torn in two because a man wanted a son to impress the villagers?! Have you ever had someone kill you but leave you alive?! Have you?! Have you?!” Paul’s a little taken aback, but tries to be reassuring. “Do you know what my nickname is?” she retorts. “The Goddess of Vengeance!” Paul is unfazed. “Okay, I’m not every woman’s dream man,” he offers ingenuously. “But I could love someone … for a really long time.” Medea looks at him with amazement. Does this oaf know what he’s getting into?

It’s scenes like these that make Maybe, Baby, It’s You!, currently playing at New Stage Theatre in Largo, more than just a random sample of vignettes about relationships. At its best, Maybe, Baby, written by Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson, is about the chasm between real and ideal amour, especially when formerly besotted lovers have finally come to know each other — and each other’s failings.

If the high point of the evening is the Medea scene, it’s because that one alone goes so far as to suggest that beneath all the harmless insecurities of people searching for love is an abyss of need and anger that can eventuate in real evil — given the wrong person and the right betrayal. But several of the other comic scenes also have a serious, if less portentous, subtext: They tell us, “love because of” can easily turn into “love in spite of” — in spite of all the flaws that time and intimacy reveal about one’s other half. Then it’s time to put on the boxing gloves — which is precisely what two of the lovers do in act two — and find out whether either pugilist is able to go the distance.

Playing the dozen or so couples in this pageant are talented actor-chameleons Alison Burns and Chris Jackson — who are a couple offstage, too — and binding it all together are (somewhat murky) voiceover sections in which Matt McGee interrogates the two of them as to the key moments in their relationship.

Not all the vignettes are winners, but most are rooted in a wise understanding of the challenges lovers face, especially over the long haul. Scott Daniel’s costumes are amusing (Jackson as an Antonio Banderas-type Don Juan is hilarious) and James Rayfield’s direction is wonderfully intelligent.

This is New Stage Theatre’s first show, and it augurs well for the company’s future.

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