As cool and swanky as it is, with its fusion jazz sound and its charcoal- and cream-colored minimalist set, Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning Art is also incredibly funny. Sparkling with smart ideas about art and modern life, the play, translated by Christopher Hampton, joyfully "deconstructs" (as one of the characters so sneeringly puts it) our ridiculous contemporary passion for everything "fashionable" -- be it homeopathic medicine, psychotherapy or absurdly high-priced paintings.
Art, which is running with two casts at the Alley, starts stirring up trouble when Serge, a "comfortable" dermatologist, buys a painting. As Marc, his starched and "humorless" friend puts it, "It's a canvas about five foot four: white. The background is white, and if you screw up your eyes, you can make out some fine white diagonal lines." Clearly something about this painting infuriates Marc. He can barely choke back astonishment when he discovers the money his dear friend has spent for the offensive object sitting before him. Dressed in his black shirt and dark trousers and his soft expensive shoes, he cat-struts back and forth before the canvas, screwing his mouth into a tight-lipped contemptuous grin, before he finally stops and erupts, "You paid 200,000 francs for this shit?"
The trouble with Marc, says Serge, stepping out of the scene into a spot of pooled light, is that "he's one of those new-style intellectuals, who are not only enemies of modernism, but seem to take some sort of incomprehensible pride in running it down."
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through November 3; 713-228-8421. $35-$50
When Marc slips into his own disc of yellow light, he says, "Serge buying this picture filled me with some sort of indefinable unease. When I left his place I had to take three capsules of Glesemium 9X I couldn't begin to understand how Serge could have bought that picture."
All this uptight though very manly rage is accompanied by peals of laughter from the audience (for both casts). For Reza goes to the silly heart of a bourgeois ideology that presumes to have something intellectual to say about art, and then he finds a way of coping with our contemporary anxieties. Serge, the man who thinks of himself as a modernist and who declares that Seneca is "very modern," thinks Marc is "vile" and "pretentious." Marc, on the other hand, has gotten his friends to read Paul Valéry, and believes that culture is something he "pisses on."
Between these two comes easygoing Yvan, "the great reconciler of the human race." While his friends are upwardly mobile deep thinkers, Yvan just wants to be the "clown." He brings "pathos" to the intellectual discussion when he begins to weep uncontrollably about his upcoming marriage, his failed career as a textile salesman and the fact that his two best friends are going at each other over a painting. "You're complete freaks, both of you," he screams, when the argument between Serge and Marc devolves into bizarre fisticuffs.
The timing of all this absurd arguing is essential to the humor. And the twin casts -- each plays every other night under director Kurt Beattie's terrifically understated, cool reserve -- render that timing in strikingly different rhythms.
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The opening night cast of Paul Hope as Serge, Todd Waite as Yvan and K. Todd Freeman as Marc is the tighter of the two. They are also the funnier. Hope, whose talents have been woefully underutilized at the Alley, is perfect as the cool though utterly sincere, suit-wearing art aficionado. Freeman is hysterical as the venomously pompous "nostalgia merchant" who argues against modernism. Waite's nervous, hand-wringing Yvan, who can't stop moaning about his family woes, steals the stage. More important than the power of each individual performance is the chemistry and perfect balance among this cast. They riff off one another with a graceful ease that is rare in live theater.
The second cast features David Rainey as Serge, John Tyson as Yvan and James Black as Marc. They don't appear to be as well suited to their roles. Somehow these actors don't seem quite comfortable in the story's upper-middle-class milieu, and they don't have the precision timing of the first cast. They do, however, bring an emotional depth to the story that is somehow missing with the other group. And they find an exquisite and moving lyricism in Reza's stunning ending.
Technically, the productions could not be crisper. The two-toned set by Andrew Jackness is gorgeous. Rooms of tall creamy walls topped off by elegant, curving crown molding are furnished with three stylish chairs, each done in dark gray tones. Chris Parry's lighting, complete with cool '60s-style double spotlights, casts the perfect sheen of malice across this rarified world. And Candice Donnelly's hip, dark costumes epitomize J. Crew chic.
But the real star here is Reza's flawless script. For it shows us how wonderfully impossible it is to define art. Yvan argues that "nothing great or beautiful in the world has ever been born of rational argument." Marc can find beauty only in rational thought. Reza creates a wonderfully funny world where both definitions are somehow true at once.