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How to Find More Meaning in "Art": See the SCR Interpretation

(c) Los Angeles Times

October 23, 2000

By F. Kathleen Foley

Is "Art" art? Or is Yasmina Reza's comedy, now playing at South Coast Repertory, merely a charming bagatelle without real philosophical heft or substance?

The answer lies somewhere in between. Last season's production of "Art" at the Doolittle Theater in Hollywood, which featured the original Broadway cast, was a pleasant enough experience--the actors proficient, the staging thoughtful. However, after that single viewing, it remained hard to understand why Reza's Tony-winning play, translated by Christopher Hampton from the original French, had enjoyed such runaway success in London and New York.

In this case, familiarity breeds affection. A second viewing of the play yields hidden depths, not to mention a bracing glibness that proved elusive the first time around.

That's largely due to the ministrations of director Mark Rucker, whose staging here taps into a requisite archness largely missing in the Doolittle production.

At the Doolittle, the actors--Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina--opted for a sort of offhanded realism, a modernist, method-based style. In this production, there's an exhilarating tinge of artifice. The actors are more elegantly crisp, their overall deportment slightly Wildean in nature. It's a key difference. What results is not so much a dialectic about the transforming capacities of art, but a comedy of manners, pure and simple. Who'd a thunk it?

The play's action, what little there is of it, revolves around a simple premise: Serge (Stephen Markle), a successful dermatologist who fancies himself an art connoisseur, has just spent a small fortune on a painting--essentially a blank white canvas. For Serge, the painting is thrilling, an apotheosis of cutting-edge modernism. But for Serge's intellectually brittle best friend Marc (John de Lancie), the painting is appalling, a white square of nothingness that symbolizes not only the emptiness of modern culture, but a crucial juncture in his friendship with Serge. Marc and Serge's argument over the painting's perceived merits, or lack thereof, escalates into a vicious feud, with their hapless friend Yvan (Steven Culp) caught in the philosophical cross-fire.

Rucker occasionally oversteps the boundaries into farce, as when he has Culp crawl around the floor in search of a missing felt-tip cap--a mindless and forced action out of keeping with the overall tone. But these directorial slips are few in an otherwise nimble staging.

Basically a prolonged conversation about a single subject, the play can verge on the repetitive. However, De Lancie and Markle, in the roles played by Alda and Garber, respectively, find hilarious rhythms that keep the evening flowing. They also bolster the scanty subtexts that explain why Marc and Serge became so close in the first place. As played by De Lancie and Markle, Serge and Marc emerge as fellow aesthetes, partners in intellectual superciliousness who have obviously bolstered one another's senses of superiority for years. Marc may have played mentor to Serge's protege, but whatever their dynamic, their rift is a devastating loss of identity for them both.

The weak link in this production is Culp, an engaging and naturally likable performer who is quite simply miscast as Yvan. Baby-faced and seemingly some years too young for the role, Culp just doesn't resonate as a dilettante whose spineless amenability is his downfall. Oh, Yvan's lengthy, neurotic rant about his upcoming wedding elicits appreciative audience applause. But the bombastic Molina stopped the show with that monologue, and it's hard to erase his definitive performance from memory. Yvan should be callow, but he should not be youthfully callow--a distinction lost in Culp's portrayal.

So, is "Art" art? Not in the cathartic sense Marc uses in the play, when, in reference to the controversial painting, he repeatedly asks, "Does it move you?" By that acid standard, Reza's play falls short. As entertainment, however, it is a charming bagatelle, and prettily packaged, too, with a stunning off-white set by Tony Fanning that strikes just the right balance between the sleek and the sterile.

"Art," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. $28-$49. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 1 hours, 30 minutes.

Steven Culp: Yvan
John de Lancie: Marc
Stephen Markle: Serge

Written by Yasmina Reza. Directed by Mark Rucker. Set by Tony Fanning. Costumes by Joyce Lee Kim. Lighting by Geoff Korf. Music and sound design by Christopher Webb. Stage manager Randall K. Lum.

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