Art by Yasmina Reza, Translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Henry Wishcamper.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Two normal men gone completely insane."
Art is a catalyst. It gets people talking, sometimes dreaming, about another life, another place, another relationship. In the play, "Art," three men who have enjoyed a fifteen year long friendship are made confrontational when one of them buys a controversial painting. That painting, a white-on-white rendering, is at the center of their conversation in the one-act, 89 minute-long show now playing on the main stage at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. The author understands the art of conversation. Through it she develops so many visions of friendship and its outer limits that she almost misses her own basic point: friendship is an art form.
These three men have little in common. Serge, played by David Garrison, is a Dermatologist, successful and comfortable. Marc is an aeronautical engineer played by Michael Countryman, also successful and comfortable. Brian Avers as Yvan is a self-proclaimed failure, a man whose work in textiles has led him, through an impending marriage, into the wholesale stationery business as a sales agent. He is definitely not comfortable and not successful. As friendshipís need go, Yvan is the neediest. Serge requires support from friends on his decisions and Marc is a true independent who needs no one and relies on no one. But they are friends.
The art of "Art" is staggering at times. It rips apart at the seams the closeness these three feel and leaves emerging gaps or holes in their friendship. Deep down, however, the three do understand that their interactions are necessary and they find ways to repair, through a trial period, their dangerous kinship.
In the current incarnation of this play the philosophical gives way to the emotional. This transition is amiably reinforced by a brilliant set designed by Robin Vest that gives to the framework of the friendship a remoteness that is designated by a vastness of elegant space. Sergeís apartment, or Marcís, includes no major furniture, rooms that are accessible through narrow doorways, steep stairways, large windows. Paintings predominate whether they are hung or not. There is a separate world outside that we never see, but within the walls of these Paris apartments people are merely ornaments that move and talk.
The simple and elegant costumes provided for Marc and Serge by Jenny Mannis easily set them apart from Yvan. Matthew Richards clever lighting design provides absolute alienation and disorientation when necessary. Michael Burnetís fight choreography is excellent.
Holding this together, fusing the distant patterns with the instant rapport, is the work of director Henry Wishcamper who seems to have a unique hold on the impact of this play. Whether it is the raw energy he inspires from his actors or the almost erotic use he makes of physical disorientation in a scene where Marc and Serge throw accusations back and forth at one another, he brings into focus for us the immediacy of friendship on the verge of closure.
Avers is a marvelous Ivan, the protestor through a vast and humorous monologue on the difficulty of getting a wedding invitation correctly worded. The oddest reaction to this speech is the accusation of self-absorption. Truly about his impending wedding it is really about a host of other people whose demands and lack of understanding are the actual point. Avers delivers this and all of his lines with an honesty that is refreshing.
Countryman takes Marc to a level of meanness that is actually endearing. He shows us Marcís inner man, needing to retain his sense of influence on his friends and their choices. We donít just hear the words, we can see the struggling human being behind them. It is a performance that demands notice in a play where ensemble work is the goal. Oddly, it is the perfect choice.
Garrison is doing the best work of his distinguished ("Married...With Children" aside) career. He plays a man so convinced that his decisions are spot-on that it seems he may never understand an opinion at odds with his own. His Serge moves the farthest into the future, not only as scripted but as acted. Garrison has an elegance that Serge does not and by the end of the play he has transferred much of that quality to his character. As Serge grows, Garrison disappears into the role, fleshing it out with his voice, gestures and personality.
When the concept of "Art" becomes the theatreís best friend, and the audienceís best friend too, then something superb has been achieved. This season has brought so many one-act plays to the fore on so many stages that a two or three act play has seemed a relief. That feeling is over now that "Art" is on the stage. Drink your wine or coffee early and come see what real art is all about.
Brian Avers as Yvan; photo: Kevin Sprague
Michael Countryman as Marc and David Garrison as Serge; photo: Kevin Sprague
David Garrison; photo: Kevin Sprague
Art plays through August 7 at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go to their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.