The "Art" of Friendship
(c) Los Angeles Times
October 16, 2000
By Mike Boehm, Times Staff Writer
French Comedy Considers What Is Inspiration? What Is Affectation?
Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning play "Art" could just as legitimately have been called "Friends." That might have boosted telephone traffic to the box office at South Coast Repertory, where "Art" is in previews on the Mainstage. No, the attendants would have to say, this doesn't involve Jennifer Aniston and her sitcom buddies, but it's funny and maybe you'd like to buy a ticket anyway.
Like the typical American television comedy, "Art" is about a close circle of cronies behaving outrageously toward one another in ways that seem petty, silly and eminently laughable. When the play, translated by Englishman Christopher Hampton from Reza's original French, played in London's West End and then on Broadway, the creative team actually was a bit miffed because audiences were laughing too much.
"We were startled. . It was dismaying," Hampton said in a 1999 interview with The Times on the eve of the Los Angeles opening of "Art," featuring the original Broadway cast with Alan Alda.
Director Mark Rucker and Steven Culp, John de Lancie and Stephen Markle, the three veteran actors who make up the South Coast cast, said that part of the fun and part of the challenge of doing "Art" is that it's hard to tell where the laughs will fall and how intense they will be.
"I think we're just going to have to wait for that . audience to see where we are, and to let the audience tell us how far we can go or if we've gone too far" in emphasizing or de-emphasizing laugh lines, de Lancie said. "That's kind of neat. It's a little scary and different than other plays."
"Art" is about three men and an all-white painting. Serge, a newly converted connoisseur of modern art, has bought the picture for 200,000 francs, or about $50,000. He insists he can see remarkable subtleties in it-including shades of color. Marc, a staunch traditionalist who hates novelty, instantly pronounces it a piece of manure. Deep fault lines in their friendship rapidly emerge as a third friend, the hapless Yvan, tries to play peacemaker and only gets caught in the cross-fire.
Rucker and the three actors didn't see the Broadway or Los Angeles productions; when the director picked up the script, he assumed "Art" would be a fairly frothy affair.
"I thought, 'Oh, it's going to be this total comedy, probably a little [superficial],'" Rucker said. "I was surprised, and I keep being surprised, at how much more is going on. The serious things that are underneath and come to the surface are things we all really want to serve. It's tremendously funny, and a lot of its humor comes out of its truth."
Some of the play's unpredictable effect on American funny bones may stem from its very Frenchness. Do most Americans care enough about art and its philosophical implications to get into a friendship-busting, scorched-earth argument, as Serge and Marc do?
Perhaps the biggest cultural difference is the sheer openness with which the characters lay out their feelings. And while the excesses of that forthrightness jeopardize the friendship, their honesty gives them a foundation, by the play's end, for rebuilding what they've spent 90 minutes willfully tearing apart.
"They are very lucky," said Markle, who plays Serge. "They battle openly, as opposed to what we sometimes do in this country."
The show's program notes include quotations about friendship aimed at focusing the audience's thoughts about the play, starting with these famous verses from William Blake:
I was angry with my friend
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
The actors' challenge is to turn this free-for-all of clashing ideas into a fair fight among friends.
At the start, Serge stands figuratively as naked as the emperor in his new clothes. Most, if not all, onlookers will see him as an intellectual poseur who has bought a ridiculous painting for a ridiculous sum, and will nod, in the opening scene, when Marc dismisses it with a series of pithy epithets.
Markle, whose career has taken him from soaps (a regular part on "One Life to Live") to Shakespeare (five productions of "Macbeth"), aims to outfit Serge with an undeniable passion that will help him overcome the seeming ridiculousness of his position-and prepare the audience for the surprising, self-sacrificing gambit that Serge uses to initiate a reconciliation.
The actor sees his character, a recently divorced dermatologist who lives in an austere apartment, as a man of fleeting, yet large, passions. For Rucker and Markle, Serge's changeableness, rather than his taste in art, is what really threatens the insecure Marc and causes his extreme attack on the white painting.
Serge has to be persuasive as a true lover of art, even if the art seems incomprehensible to us.
"If it's a delightful passion, if it's a charming passion, if it isn't a priggish passion, then I think it's possible to start having an equal balance," Markle said. "The single-mindedness about something that carries you through everyone else's criticisms-that is deliciously human and it's fun to play."
De Lancie completely identifies with Marc's attitude toward the rarefied aesthetic surrounding some of modern art's more inscrutable manifestations: "I've looked at stuff and said, 'Give me a break.'"
But Marc, he said, is such an extreme aggressor in the face of the seemingly innocuous provocation of his friend's lapse of taste that things even out.
"[The audience] begins to detach from the character I play, because he can be quite insulting, exceedingly judgmental, very quick to temper."
Reviewing the Los Angeles production in January 1999, Times critic Don Shirley faulted "Art" for placing its characters "in a vacuum," with nothing to convincingly establish the bond of friendship that gets tested during the play's course.
"I don't think that's an idle criticism," said de Lancie, who played the brainy, powerful villain, Q, in the TV series "Star Trek: The Next Generation." This is his fourth play at South Coast.
"One of the things we're trying to explore is why they are friends," he continued. "Where in the script can we find places where we look at each other and just start laughing [in a moment of spontaneous, shared camaraderie] and then-bam!-right back into it. In the midst of what appears to be just a disastrous conversation, we've found a couple of places where they're able to disengage enough to have a laugh."
Culp, the son of actor Robert Culp, looks enough like Bobby Kennedy to have played him twice-once in an HBO movie about Marilyn Monroe and in the upcoming "13 Days," a feature about the Cuban missile crisis starring Kevin Costner. As Yvan, he is a considerably less steely fellow-a noncommittal, conciliatory type who becomes, figuratively and literally, a punching bag for his two adamantly opinionated friends.
Yvan's life is a mess, but Culp believes that by the end he is learning to be himself instead of standing in the impossible position of trying to be what he thinks others want him to be.
Yvan's most pathetic moment figures to be Culp's most glorious: an out-of-control steamroller of a monologue that goes on for two pages of the script without ever coming to a full stop. One pitfall could be that the audience may start laughing too soon and too long to hear him out.
"God bless them if they do," he said. "I hope somebody at least chuckles through it, because if I'm in the middle of that second page and it's dead silence out there, I'm going to start sweating."
"Art," South Coast Repertory Mainstage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Regular performances begin Friday. $18-$49. Pay-what-you-will matinee, Saturday. Through Nov. 19. (714) 708-5555.
For the record
Actor Steven Culp, currently appearing in "Art" at South Coast Repertory, was misidentified as the son of actor Robert Culp in a story Oct. 16.