Double Dose of Art
The Tony Award-winning international hit Art, by acclaimed playwright Yasmina Reza, has been staged several times in the Houston area, with one production closing recently at College of the Mainland, and dueling productions opening last weekend at Texas Repertory Theatre and at Shunya Theatre. Prior Houston productions were at Generation Theatre, Dionysus Theatre, Country Playhouse and probably others. With Reza's The Unexpected Man now playing at Stages, and her The God of Carnage having graced the Alley Theatre last year, we wonder: What would Houston theater do without her?
The structure and subject matter for Art seem simple: A man buys an expensive, almost totally white painting, and two close friends react to the purchase. But what ensues is a complex psychological study of how vanity, pettiness and real or imagined slights can reveal the abyss between human beings and throw light on the fragile bridge of friendship that leads them across the abyss. The devil is in the details — using the word "deconstruction" is a landmine, saying "the artist" instead of "the painter" is a hand grenade, and how one waves away cigarette smoke is an atomic bomb. Reza knows the heart of man, and it is not a pretty sight. But, in the hands of Reza, it is a hilarious one.
Both opening productions are excellent, and wonderfully successful, with skilled directors finding the rich humor and psychological insights, and talented actors fleshing out vivid characterizations. This strong comedy is a chameleon, taking on different colors as the actors and directors change.
At Texas Rep, Serge, the owner of the painting, dominates the stage as played by Rob de los Reyes, with humor and poise, while his quasi-mentor Marc (Tom Long) chooses anger as his main expression, weakening the characterization. Joshua Estrada plays the third, less sophisticated friend, Yvan, and is delightful, succeeding at a long, humorous monologue about stepmothers being listed on a wedding invitation. Julia Traber directed here, and the pace is appropriately brisk, but not breakneck, giving us time to digest the wit, and to savor the high drama as the friends cross the boundaries of civility and turn into gladiators in an arena. And the handsome, tasteful set works well.
In the Shunya Theatre production, Marc dominates the stage as played by Asif Sayani; his performance is intelligent, his reactions subtle and he seems to inhabit the character. It is a powerful interpretation, succeeding because Sayani finds the humor in his lines. Prateek Karkal plays Serge and is convincing, capturing his upward striving and his defensiveness, but here it is he who seems angry. Karthik Chander plays Yvan and finds most of the comic elements without losing the character, though he is less successful at the wedding invitation tirade.
The set is appropriately zen-like. Dianne K. Webb directed, and she created an acting ensemble, making us believe that these are longtime friends who know each other well, perhaps too well. Webb is also an artist, and she painted the three paintings important to the plot herself. They are strikingly interesting in themselves.
There is a hidden message in Art, as unobtrusive as the almost all-white painting — this playwright is subtlety itself, amusing herself as she chronicles the foibles of humanity. It may be that mankind is not noble, but merely a snowflake in the furnace of eternity; that our vanity and pettiness are all we have, and should thus be celebrated. Or, as Peggy Lee phrased it, "If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing."
I've been audience to four productions of Art, and each one has been dramatically different. By all means, see this acclaimed, award-winning comedy if you haven't already, and if you have, relish, as I do, the prospect of returning to see it again. Make time for both productions; Art is a comic masterpiece, to be visited often, like a favorite restaurant.
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