Art is an entertaining play about male friendship and contemporary art

Yasmina Reza's Art has two subjects, one of them serious and worthy of attention, the other slightly embarrassing and perhaps even philistine. The better theme — and the one that gets most of the stage time — is male friendship and the unspoken agreements that sustain it.

The three men in this case are Marc, Serge and Yvan, whose comradeship is threatened by a disagreement over a painting, and who eventually discover what awkward and never-admitted assumptions have bound them together for over a decade. The painting they disagree about — an all-white canvas by a celebrated modernist named Antrios — is the occasion for the second theme: the imaginative bankruptcy of modern art and the pretentiousness of those who claim to admire it.

From the moment that Serge admits he paid 200,000 francs for the monochromatic rectangle, Reza implicitly makes the case that today's art world is a den of con men and women supported by suckers who wouldn't know a masterpiece from a mud puddle. This argument is ridiculous.

After a century of great abstract painting, beginning with the work of Kandinsky, it's shocking to hear Marc, apparently speaking for Reza, say "I don't believe in the values that dominate contemporary art. The rule of novelty. The rule of surprise." Those "rules" expanded the imagination of the Western world exponentially, and their power has yet to fade. Reza/Marc's dismissal of the white painting as "this shit" is, at best, regrettable.

But you don't have to buy into it to enjoy this otherwise entertaining play. Reza is a wonderful writer of dialogue (and occasional monologues directed at the audience), and the story she tells is often very funny and, at times, deeply revealing.

It all starts when proud Serge shows his new painting to skeptical Marc. Marc is peeved that Serge doesn't see what a fool he's made of himself, and decides to confide in their mutual buddy Yvan. But Yvan is a peacemaker, and takes the attitude that if Serge and his painting aren't hurting anyone, and if the artwork makes Serge happy, then what's the problem? One encounter leads to another, Serge makes matters worse by using the word "deconstruction" and recommending that Marc read Seneca, and finally matters come to a head in an unexpected but convincing way. It turns out that an apparent relationship of three equals was never that in Marc's mind. And it turns out that Serge isn't as unshakable as he seems.

I've seen two other productions of Art — one in Tampa and one in Sarasota — and each time a different character has stood out most vividly. This time the key character is Marc, played by Steve DuMouchel (full disclosure: DuMouchel has a part in a staged reading of one of my own plays at American Stage in mid-December). DuMouchel, who was so memorable in Stageworks' Lobby Hero two seasons ago, gives us this character as an earthy realist, more physical than his two friends, less willing to mince words, absolutely sure of his own perspective and impatient with fools who dare to see things differently.

As modern art connoisseur Serge, Mark Myers is comically petulant, mighty pleased with himself for having the intelligence to purchase an Antrios, and just thin-skinned enough to take umbrage at Marc's different view. As Yvan, Eric Misener is a likable caricature of a loser, unsure of his upcoming marriage, unpersuaded by his new job as a wholesale stationer, and undone by a bit of violence aimed at Serge but reaching him instead.

Michael Holden's fine staging aims at a stylized realism, and the uncredited costumes, all gray and/or black, give a nice minimalist look to a show which is, after all, about a minimalist painting. The only really bothersome feature of this production at the tiny Venue Ensemble Theatre is the lighting, which changes too abruptly and noisily. But the set, also uncredited, is simple and simply sufficient: a sofa, an easy chair, an easel. All that's needed to signal a scene shift is a change of painting on that easel.

I don't think that this version of Art finds all the comedy in the script, but it grabbed my attention anyway and held onto it for 90 minutes. Reza's theory of painting may be easy to dismiss, but she's wise on the secret dynamics of friendship, and moreover has a notable flair for well-shaped dialogue. I'm glad I saw it — even for the third time. You try it too — and watch out for that provocative white painting.

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