What White on White on White Reveals in Art at Company OnStage

(L-R) Brian Heaton, Frank Mena and Jimmy Volleman in Art at Company OnStage
(L-R) Brian Heaton, Frank Mena and Jimmy Volleman in Art at Company OnStage Photo by Jonathan Moonen

Friends made dinner reservations at a very expensive restaurant without checking my schedule, so I had to dash out in the middle of several courses of tiny appetizers. But do you know what? Yasmina Reza's Tony-and-Olivier best play award winner, Art, presented by Company OnStage, put haute cuisine completely out of mind. The production, in the tiniest of theaters, Room 233 at Spring Street Studios, was thoroughly enjoyable, supremely tasty, and worth every penny. Theater food of the highest quality is fit for the gods.

This bright and witty bauble of a play is given a Tiffany polish. Under the exact jeweler’s eye of director Karla Brandau, you’d almost believe it was a diamond. It gleams and sparkles and makes you laugh out loud. Translated from the original French, Christopher Hampton’s adaptation is smooth and bitchy, brought to expansive hilarious life by the acting trio of Brian Heaton (Marc), Jimmy Vollman (Serge), and Frank Mena (Yvan), best friends who battle over the fourth main character, an ungainly abstract painting, white on white on white, that snobby Serge has bought for a ridiculous amount of money.

The painting dominates the room and dominates the three friends, setting them on a comic collision of examination and self-reflection. The very nature of their triad bromance will be tested. The white painting is an “Antrios from his '70s period,” and Serge is mighty proud of his purchase. He should be, it cost $200,000.

Marc seriously studies the painting. Serge seriously studies Marc studying the painting. Look at it from this angle, Serge suggests. Marc studies it again. A pause. Incredulous and stifling a guffaw, Marc declares, You paid $200,000 for this shit?

And the play is off and running, a 90-minute romp that dissects modern art, friendship, revelations buried under years of buddy love, incriminations, even Seneca's La Vita Beata, and how we really don't know our best friends, or anything for that matter. The blankness of the canvas reveals all.

Marc recruits Yvan to convince Serge he's out of his mind to pay for such a monstrosity, but lovely Yvan is the requisite sad-sack, the man on the fence, trying to bring peace and falling to pieces under a harridan of a mother and a wedding where Marc and Serge will be his best men. All three actors are pinprick exact.

Heaton displays Marc's steam-filled rage at being replaced in Serge's life by a painting; while Vollman's Serge is barbed and crisp with a wondrous whiff of Oscar Wilde. But it's Mena's exasperated Yvan who elevates Reza's battle of the bros. He's not up to their level of snobbery or condescension, he doesn't have much prospect in his low-end job at the stationery store, he's on a treadmill and knows it, but he's deliciously worried, nervous, always trying to please. He's eminently watchable, especially in the play's classic “phone monologue,” where a breathless Yvan recalls his family squabble over wedding announcements, which exposes a perpetual mobile of family dysfunction.

Reza would refine her thesis – civilized men devolving into anarchy over trivialities – in a more deft style in her next comedy of bad manners, God of Carnage, but Art (1966) is nonetheless fresh and innovative and very funny. The comedy beguiles with constant witty flashes and comic situations to recall the best of Burns and Allen, Jacques Tati, and Neil Simon. Ninety minutes fly by, and when it’s over you realize you’ve been smiling all the while. It's much more satisfying than an overpriced dinner. Now, that’s art.

Art continues through April 29 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 23 at  Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street, Suite 233. For more information, call 713-726-1219 or visit $18-$20.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover