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Theater Review: "Art"

(c) Back Stage West

October 26, 2000

By Kristina Mannion

Spare, chic, arrestingly stark, sublimely sleek. These descriptors easily apply to French playwright Yasmina Reza's hilariously cynical comedy, in which three friends experience a rather unsettling hiccup in their otherwise smooth longtime friendship. These adjectives also suit the item of controversy at the center of Reza's play: a thoroughly modern, seemingly all-white painting by a hot contemporary artist, purchased for an outrageous sum by Serge (Stephen Markle), one of the three friends. Reza introduces an exhilarating whirlwind of witty repartee and sly jibes when she brings in Serge's best pal Marc (John de Lancie). Their deceptively laid-back friend Yvan (Steven Culp) can't stem the tide of argument. When the dust begins to settle, Reza leaves us with her own vivid canvas depicting the tenuous nature of art and friendship?concepts with constantly shifting definitions, depending on the eye of the beholder.

Following the cue of Reza's stylish and efficient script, South Coast Repertory's current staging of Art is a picture of chicness. Under Mark Rucker's steady direction, this production maintains a sharp elegance that neatly complements the play's pithy dialogue and the refined demeanor of Reza's urbane characters. Likewise, with the aid of a thoroughly adroit cast, Rucker imbues his staging with a wonderfully understated Gallic charm that subtly reminds us of the play's French origin without diminishing the feeling of universality that grows as we witness the friends' struggles to find meaning in art and friendship.

Set designer Tony Fanning provides a backdrop that is stunning yet aptly minimalist. Made up of soaring walls, panels, and artfully placed columns, all in muted colors, the set serves mainly as Serge's apartment. In this modish setting, Serge excitedly shows his new art piece to Marc. It is a strained moment?fraught with hilarity at Marc's unabashed disdain for the painting and Serge's stunned offense at his friend's lack of appreciation for what he believes is a masterpiece.

As Serge and Marc, Markle and de Lancie turn Reza's dialog (translated skillfully by Christopher Hampton) into an entertaining fencing match. They trade clipped barbs and banter as they delve into the meaning of art?which later becomes a parallel to the changing meaning of their own friendship. Shrugging his shoulders and often exhaling expressively, Markle effects a European manner that lends even more charm and amusement to Serge's upset at Marc's lack of support. De Lancie is hilarious as the reserved, ultra-sophisticated Marc, who becomes strangely unsettled at the thought that his friend and former pseudo-protégé has become enamored of modern art. Culp's Yvan is a chatty, somewhat scatterbrained fellow whose attempts to patch the rift go awry the moment he steps into the fray. At one point, his penchant for fast-paced monologues gets the better of him as he frenziedly relates his romantic relationship woes to Serge and Mark, a scene that allows Culp to shine. Eventually, the three friends unearth commonalities that prove to be more meaningful than they had thought?and more lasting even than the definition of art and the impression of white paint on white canvas.

"Art," presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20-Nov. 19. $28-49.

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