What does it mean, this big, bold painting hanging right in the middle of Art?
You can try to read between the lines for some hidden message, but you’ll draw a blank. The painting has no lines to read between. No color, form, pattern, or texture either, for that matter, save for some tiny diagonal flecks that may — perhaps — appear when viewed from a certain angle. From top to bottom, it’s white. Nothing more. One wonders if the canvas has been painted at all. And it just cost Serge, an aspiring art-collector, 200,000 hard-earned francs.
Did someone play a joke on Serge (John Lescault), or is he playing a joke on his old friends Marc (Mitchell Hebert) and Yvan (Michael Russotto)? Or, more unsettling still, is there nothing funny about the painting at all? Yasmina Reza’s trim little 1994 comic drama plays off the idea that every void also acts as a mirror — that poring over an empty space and scanning for meaning differs not at all from our daily efforts to see into ourselves.
Matt Gardiner’s handsome production at Signature, driven with sure-footed aplomb by this particularly talented trio of actors, proves itself capable of capturing the sore humor and the sad, touching truths of friendships thrown into a big white empty proving ground.
It may not ever be clear whether the painting merits the rigorous dissection it provokes from Marc, who is immediately disturbed and disgusted by Serge’s capricious purchase. But the quiet irony of the play lies in what it has to say about the enduring worth of all art. True, the presence of this strange, mocking blankness riles Marc (whom Hebert plays with admirably icy restraint), and, in turn, spurs Serge to self-defense. But high conflict, in storytelling, is a success unto itself, and this one is Reza’s poignant, if aggravated, vision of how art carries the potential to alter a viewer’s outlook on life and his place in the world. It may only be a white-on-white painting, but what a fascinating world we’d live in if every work of art sparked the kind of heartfelt discussions and unsettling revelations that keep these three men from putting on their coats and finally leaving to go out for a late dinner!
“I love Serge,” says Marc. “And I can’t love the Serge who’s capable of loving that painting.” Trying to locate the source of Marc’s anxiety proves to be much of the play’s fun, but it’s clear that he’s afraid that someone’s playing a trick on him. Serge, he fears, is testing him, by showing him an emperor with no clothes on — in this case, a supremely expensive work of art of no discernible image. Which is interesting because, for many in the theater world and beyond, Reza’s play has slowly become the painting it describes: an internationally produced work many times over (the script has been translated into more than thirty languages) and — one might argue — loved and adored beyond the measurable value it displays.
Despite the hotheaded, self-righteous tendencies of these three characters, the ambitions of the play itself are quite mild, trafficking more in the small whimsies of circumstance than in detail to character. The men’s arguments against each other are more slippery than abrasive, in part, because Reza provides practically no texture of backstory, or any detail of why or how they became friends in the first place.
Such stylings don’t undermine the play so much as untether it from the ground. Like a French stage version of a “Seinfeld” episode, it’s really a play about a whole lot of nothing. Even though, as in that television show, Art is pumped full of living-room rants and emotional extremes, the show itself has a lacquered quality to it. It’s a silly saga of harmful people in a completely harmless environment. Serge thinks his painting is a masterpiece, and Marc thinks it’s garbage, but most art is somewhere in the middle, and Reza’s script is a prime example of such a work. If the play were a friend of yours, it’d be the one you invite to dinner because you are looking forward to a pleasant, non-disruptive evening. And the last two decades have shown that many regional theatres — who arrange seasons instead of dinners — see Art as precisely this guest, perpetually invited back for being reliably charming and amusing.
That being said, the show is not only structurally sound, but rife with juicy one-liners, knife-sharp comebacks, and one especially wonderful monologue from the exasperated Yvan about wedding invitations (which, after an avalanching performance from a very funny Russotto, stopped Sunday’s performance mid-scene for a round of applause).
Gardiner knows that the success of a production of Art relies as much on the casting as it does on the director’s skills (which he displays smartly and consistently throughout). Fortunately, these three actors strike a confident balance not only between each other but among each character’s wide-ranging, almost melodramatic variations in tone.
As Serge, Marc, and Yvan set their offenses cascading off each other, it grows clear that they really do care about each other. It may be an infuriating charity, this drive to make sure that your friends don’t lose their ambitions and good sense over time. But isn’t that what friends are for — to stand like signposts in your way sometimes?
In the big picture, we’re on on a big white canvas of our own. The future’s always fuzzed out, like a snowstorm, and you can barely ever see where you’re going. Don’t we each deserve some points of reference as we try to move across that empty space?
Written by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Matt Gardiner
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: Approximately 1 hour, 20 minutes without intermission.
- David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
- Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway
- Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You