Texas Repertory Theatre Brings Art to Exciting Life

The setup:

The Tony Award-winning international hit Art, by acclaimed playwright Yasmina Reza, gets yet another successful Houston production at Texas Repertory Theatre, as the long-established friendship of three adult males is threatened when one buys a large, expensive and almost entirely white painting.

The execution:

The proscenium setting of Texas Rep is ideal for this play, as the entire audience gets to see all the interactions among the three characters. The set is simple and tasteful, and the actors are talented and professional, playing dramatically different personalities, yet each feeding a need in each other. This play is a template, close to a brilliant coloring book, with the individual actors, and the director, selecting the colors to bring it to vivid life.

Serge is the owner of the expensive painting, and Rob de los Reyes plays him with humor and captivating charm, though the painting in the production is so white, and the few lines of texture so subtle, that it's hard to share his enthusiasm for his purchase, except as a stab at upward cultural mobility. This role is often overshadowed by the role of the more authoritative Marc, but this is not the case here, as the stage presence and relaxed poise of de los Reyes make him a pleasure to watch. Tom Long plays Marc, quasi-mentor to Serge, and in this production Marc seems at war with the world, and with himself. He is angry a lot, and when he's accused of having lost his sense of humor, the accusation rings true. The anger makes him less plausible as a mentor, from whom one would expect urbanity, and permits less variety in the character, leaving little room for relaxed charm.

The third friend, Yvan, is more open and less sophisticated. His role includes a long comic monologue about complications arising from dueling stepmothers who want their names on his wedding invitation. Joshua Estrada handles the monologue, and the role, wonderfully, and gives an authentic, sensitive performance. It's hard to see how it could be played better. Julia Traber directed, and she keeps the pace brisk but not breakneck, giving us time to digest the wit and savor the high drama as the friends cross the boundaries of civility and turn into gladiators in an arena.

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, merely a snowflake in the furnace of eternity, and 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."

This sterling comedy is a chameleon -- I've been in the audience at four productions, and each is dramatically different. By all means, see this acclaimed, award-winning comedy if you haven't already, and if you have, then relish, as I do, the prospect of seeing it again.

The verdict:

Sophisticated dialogue and polite strivings among three male friends evolve into truth-telling and fierce battles, brought to exciting life by talented actors and director, and generating memorable hilarity.

Art continues through May 27 at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd. For information or ticketing, call 281-583-7573 or visit the company Web site.

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Jim Tommaney