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90 Minutes of Entertaining Argument

(c) The Press-Enterprise

October 28, 2000

By T.E. Foreman

Many years ago, the New Yorker magazine had a cartoon of several art critics examining a large white canvas that was blank except for a black dot in the middle.

One of them says, "I don't care if he is the world's greatest abstract artist, I think he's kidding us."

In her play "Art" at South Coast Repertory, Yasmina Reza has taken that same idea and made it into 90 minutes of entertainment while dealing with some points about friendship and, yes, about art.

And 90 minutes is just the right length. It keeps us entertained, but in another few minutes we would have become tired of three men engaging in emotional but vacuous arguments. For that is what the three characters do.

Serge (Stephen Markle) has bought a painting -- a five-foot-by-four-foot piece of white canvas with nothing on it. Well, perhaps there are white lines on it.

Serge swears there are, but his friend, Marc (John de Lancie), does not see them and he calls the work a piece of something else.

They turn to their friend, Yvan (Steven Culp), for an opinion. Yvan, a life-long fence straddler, can only say, well, he sort of likes it, maybe. The argument takes many twists and turns, going into facets of each man's life and personality, until Serge and Marc are literally at each others throats and Yvan has been injured trying to separate them.

That they are able finally to go out to dinner together as friends again attests to the strength of their friendship.

Their arguing is generally amusing and frequently quite funny. As a sidelight to the art argument, Yvan is about to be married, and Culp as Yvan has a long, l-o-o-ng rapid-fire dissertation on a disagreement he is having with his potential in-laws that is a comedy masterpiece.

The play was set in Paris and was written in French. A companion noted that this is proper because American men do not discuss friendship and feelings quite the way these Frenchmen do.

Christopher Hampton did the translation and Mark Rucker is the director who keeps everything in tune. The set by Tony Fanning is basically a room with white walls that prepares us for the feeling of the play.

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