Updated: Feb 26, 2021
YVAN: “If I’m who I am because I’m who I am and you’re who you are because you’re who you are, then I’m who I am and you’re who you are. If, on the other hand, I’m who I am because you’re who you are, and if you’re who you are because I am who I am, then I’m not who I am and you’re not who you are…” You see why I had to write it down.
International City Theatre opens its 36th season with a virtual presentation of “Art,” a heady, hilarious look at the bonds of friendship viewed through the prism of modern art.
The short, slender and often very funny play by playwright Yasmina Reza, produced by ICT and currently streaming on demand through March 7th, may remind one vaguely of a Seinfeld episode. The action follows three middle aged men through a quandary over one of the fellows’ freshly purchased piece of art – that pinnacle of Modernism – a white painted canvas, sparking protest from the other two friends.
Reza uses this canvas as a space to develop the characters’ differing ideologies. While the three main players, who wear chic, monochromatic outfits and toss around words like ''deconstruction,'' argue viciously over their responses to the painting, they are by no means abstract. They are of a reassuringly generic sort that makes it clear why this comedy crosses cultural barriers with such ease.
The play does lives up to the title, pulling big philosophical punches one after the other, picking apart the minutiae of ostentatiousness – in both taste, and relationships as we begin to ponder the meaning of art, and by extension of course, we mean…life.
''Art'' is, in fact, an impeccably tailored piece of work, with virtues nicely underscored by Reza’s satiric genius, caryn desai’s disciplined direction and three astute performances. While Ms. Reza's script provides sparse monologues for each of the characters, words are really secondary here. The level on which ''Art'' works, and works quite successfully, is similar to a relaxed comedy tucked into an escalating tension. The play begins by sounding the first note in a debate that almost instantly turns from academic to personal, when Serge first shows the painting to Marc. Most of what follows is a spirited anatomy of clashing perspectives and shifting alliances that is less a study in character than it is a situation.
Marc (Michael Uribes – “Threepenney Opera,” “Around the World in 80 Days”), the oldest and most judgmental, is an aggressive know-it all who has “risen above” such intellectual snobbery he believes has suckered in Serge, the painting’s newest proprietor. Forty year old hipster, Serge (Brent Schindele – Natl Tours: “Sound of Music,” “Jesus Christ Superstar”), represents a sniveling bourgeois wannabe and a pretentious Parisian dermatologist. Then, insert Yvan (Brian Stanton – Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” “The Consul, The Tramp & America's Sweetheart”) as the everyman fence sitter; the ‘I don’t care where we have dinner’ friend who manages to both shmooze and constrict every social gathering with his inability to remain forever neutral.
Mr. Stanton’s Yvan, portraying a younger man with a hazy sense of direction in life, is more propitiatory. Hopeful of pleasing both of his longtime comrades, he bends obligingly between the two, an attitude that turns out to be just as alienating as Marc's forthright contempt and Serge's injured defensiveness. As the exchange of recriminations becomes increasingly violent, the three men are forced to wonder if they ever had anything in common. That idea creates a prospect that is, of course, unbearably lonely.
Basically, it's a slapstick duel between two equally hopeless states of negativity and positivity (Marc and Serge), with boring old reality wedged somewhere in between (Yvan).
Ironically, the roles in ''Art'' are coveted by actors. And it's easy to understand why: the work has a balletic timing and precision that allows performers to stretch muscles they don't get to use very often. The three actors assembled here don't disappoint. Under Ms. caryn desai’s truly elegant direction, they keep reconfiguring the play's psychic triangle with charming deftness and flexibility. Just watch the telling counterpoint of Mr. Uribes and Mr. Schindele in the opening scene, and their use of complicitous laughter, which indicates who's on which side at any given moment.
Mr. Uribes is perfectly cast as a man with a smirk in his voice, pulling off Marc's big moment of self-revelation, which is a tough thing to do in the limited context of this play.
Mr. Schindele is also excellent in balancing Serge's vanity and vulnerability: you're always aware of the open, woundable child behind the posturing esthete.
But it's Mr. Stanton’s hapless Yvan, a blundering centrist of a man, who is most affecting. And his exasperated, pyrotechnic rendering of Yvan's monologue about the politics of his wedding invitations justifiably stops the show.
The creative team behind ICT’s version of “Art” also includes costume designer Kim DeShazo, projections and sound designer Dave Mickey, wig designer Anthony Gagliardi, prop masters Patty and Gordon Briles; video editor Mike Bradecich; casting directors Michael Donovan and Richie Ferris; publicist Lucy Pollak; and stage manager Donna Parsons.
In addition to winning two Molière Awards (France’s most prestigious drama prize) and Broadway’s Tony Award® for best new play, “Art” also enjoyed a six-year run in London, where it received a Laurence Olivier award for comedy.
Relevantly, Reza’s savagely caustic comedy of bad manners “God of Carnage” also recently reviewed to critical acclaim with the OC Register, effusing, “‘God of Carnage shows manners, and reason, as road-kill … director caryn desai’s (“Backwards in High Heels,” “Dinah Was” —most L.A. Ovation award nominations, “Beast on the Moon”) staging stings because it hits so close to home about human nature.”
Streaming on demand from Feb. 18th through March 7th, every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (dark Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays); price $30 per household. Tickets available for purchase now at www.InternationalCityTheatre.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Sara Corwin, Lorenzo Hodges, Gabriel Zenone