Art Puts Laughter on Display at Studio 101

The setup:

The international comedic triumph Art, by Yasmina Reza, returns to Houston, as the long-standing friendship of three males is threatened by the purchase of a large, expensive, almost entirely white painting by one friend.

The execution:

Shunya Theatre and director Dianne K. Webb have staged this popular comedy in the new arts space Studio 101, and this intimate venue is perfect (well, almost) for this compelling work. The dramatic stakes may not seem high in this comedy, as trivial slights, real or perceived, dominate the dialogue, but Reza's genius is that she knows the devil is in the details. Use of 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.

Director Webb has succeeded in creating an acting ensemble. We become convinced that we are seeing long-standing and familiar friends, who know each other far too well and have established a comfortable and mutually supportive bond. This is the heart of the comedy, and it is established beautifully here by director and actors. As the relationships become increasingly frayed, we are involved completely in the concerns of the characters. Asif Sayani plays Marc, the most sophisticated, and a quasi-mentor to the others, as well as a bit of a troublemaker. His performance is intelligent and nuanced, his reactions are subtle and appropriate, and he seems to inhabit the character; it is a powerful interpretation. Prateek Karkal plays Serge and is convincing, capturing his upward striving and his defensiveness. Karthik Chander plays Yvan, the least sophisticated of the trio, and finds the comic elements without losing the character.

The set for this play is crucial, as this is a work about taste, and I've seen productions where ugly or inappropriate sets ruined the effect. Here the one wall is appropriately neutral, and a simple change of art serves to dramatically illustrate the taste of the inhabitant -- at least one scene takes place in the apartment of each friend. Director Webb, an artist herself, created each of the very different paintings for each apartment, and the results serve admirably.

Two of the actors have slight accents, not inappropriate for a cosmopolitan city like Paris. Well into the play, there is an extensive, hilarious monologue by Yvan, worth the price of admission alone, reciting the difficulties in deciding which stepmothers get mentioned in a wedding invitation, but Chander doesn't find the rhythm for this. It can be done many ways, but it should be said "trippingly on the tongue," with a sense of great urgency and frustration, and this is absent. While the movements of the actors on the small stage were otherwise staged well, here Yvan is largely confined to a static, standing position.

The theater is a thrust stage, with audience seated on three sides, and the several brief monologues addressed to the audience were played all the way to the front, so that those on either side were slighted, a minor flaw. But the attractive ambience of Studio 101, its intimacy and the ability of so much of the audience to be near the action onstage makes this an excellent performance venue.

This begins the tenth year of productions for Shunya Theatre, dedicated to providing through the arts a voice to the South Asian-American experience, and Shunya's success in presenting this audience favorite is a welcome celebration of its long-standing contribution to Houston theater.

The Verdict:

A widely popular play by a brilliant playwright is brought to vibrant comedic life by deft acting and excellent direction, and is well worth a return visit, even if you've seen this theatrical gem before.

Art continues through May 13, presented by Shunya Theatre at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St. For information or reservations, call 832-452-5193 or contact [email protected]

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Jim Tommaney