Art: In the Eye of the Beholder

Art-101-4I don’t know about art, but I know what I like.

This frustrating aphorism creates boundaries and absolves the person using it from the burden of responsibility for their opinion. It is how Everyman relates to the aesthetic in much the same way we can spout insensitivity with the qualifier, “I’m just saying…” Both phrases write a blank check for poor taste, but there is an undercurrent of evil in the latter. It is perfectly ok, and even desirable, to appreciate an artistic endeavor without having the background or vocabulary to elaborate on the “why” of it all, but when used as an excuse to dismiss complexity or to justify the banal, then not only does the artist suffer, but we, as a potential audience for that artist, lose an opportunity to grow.

That point is explored deftly and often with cruel humor in Yasmina Reza’s celebrated masterpiece, Art, now in the middle of its run at Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield. Art centers around three friends, Serge, Marc, and Yvan, and the often fragile nature of their friendship once Serge purchases a painting for an enormous sum of money. The painting in question is from a noted artist and has provenance, but the issue that concerns Marc, the cynical proto-hipster, is that the piece, at a glance, is simply a “white background with white lines.” What follows in the next 90 minutes is an exploration of the nature of friendship, the subjectivity of taste, and a challenge to the audience to decide with which of these archetypes we most readily identify. The result is something of a drug-free Hurlyburly – men (often showing us their most unsavory character traits) verbally and mentally sparring in order to get at the root of long-buried resentments and jealousies. Is there resolution? Perhaps, but friendship, like art, is always subjective.

Director Ryan Hartigan directs with his usual precision and a finely tuned sense of absurd anarchy simmering underneath. As Marc is introduced to Serge’s new acquisition, he establishes his territory by denigrating the seemingly monotone artwork and denying Serge both the obvious pleasure of his new treasure and his underlying need for acceptance. Yvan, their somewhat clownish punching bag of a friend, gets caught in the middle as he can understand Marc’s sarcastic humor about it all, but still is not as quick to write off the piece as “a white piece of shit.” Hartigan moves his actors around like pieces on a chessboard, accentuating the triangulation of the friends, constantly shifting the two-on-one balance, often literally putting the white painting in between them, until even we are unclear as to where allegiances lie.

Hartigan allows each actor’s strengths to shine while still clearly achieving his directorial aims. Brad Kirton’s Marc has a playfulness hidden underneath the smug exterior, but an edge of immature violence always seems looming. With all of Marc’s absolutisms concerning the character flaws of his two friends, he is inadvertently more pretentious than the others, popping homeopathic remedies and dressing up in a “Low”-era David Bowie t-shirt with a professorial blazer. He spars more directly with Andrew Katzman’s flighty Serge, but saves some of his most vicious bile for the anxiety-ridden Yvan (played with oafish excellence by Rico Lanni). In one particularly hilarious yet touching scene, Yvan is off on one of his peevish tirades about his fiancé and wedding invitations, while, behind his back, Kirton and Katzman slowly escalate a carrot-stick filled show of one-upmanship in order to demonstrate their impatience. The scene is not entirely scripted and Hartigan trusts his players enough to have fun while not pulling the focus from the scene. The result is a demonstration of the boyish bond that does exist with Marc and Serge, and though they will turn again on each other once Yvan is no longer an easy target, we now have a deeper sense of their friendship than a straight reading of the script could provide.

To complement his facile cast, Hartigan and his designers have opted for a contemporary, modern look and feel to showcase the debate over “classicist-modern-naive” that the three friends represent. However, much like Serge’s new painting, there are some complex subtleties to be found. Meg Perry’s masculine grey and maroon set is clean and uncluttered, but what hangs on those walls can be very telling. Windows that may or may not be paintings that may or may not be windows depict a view of Paris in tetraptych, reminding us of both our setting (Hartigan has allowed the setting to remain in the original locale, avoiding any messy contradictions concerning American sensibilities and arguments concerning the nature of art) and the ostensible subject of the play. Besides Serge’s modern controversy, we also get to see Marc’s “classical” still life and Yvan’s homage to the now-infamous amateur-botched Jesus painting (“Ecce Homo”) that the other two laughingly note was “painted by his father.” In this, again, like the windows, we can’t imagine that Yvan actually has this painting on his wall, but what it represents is not only mildly hilarious, but also says more about Yvan and his sensibilities than anything directly said in the script.

Another nice touch is Matthew Requintina’s original underscoring that leads us from scene to scene with an unsettling, jazz-inflected feel that sounds like Fats Domino was directed by David Lynch to provide incidental music for “The Brady Bunch.” That is a good thing, by the way, as tying together time and place in Art is trickier than simply replacing the painting on the wall to denote a new apartment. Some past productions have utilized abstract stages that closely resemble painter’s palettes, an effect that seems too clever by half, but here, it is the subtle touches that draw out feeling and thought, supplementing the deft character work by Hartigan’s trio.

Art is a play that may make you question if there is such a thing as “bad” artistic expression, but it should at least make you think about the intricacies of friendship, and especially that odd creature, male friendship. Why is a certain painting compelling? Why do we stick by our friends even though we may not always like their characters? This play doesn’t solve any of these problems, but it does satisfy on a visceral and mental level, proving that you may not know much about what you like, but you’ll like Art.

The Contemporary Theater Company presents Art, by Yasmina Reza through September 6. 327 Main Street, South Kingstown. Performance Dates: Aug 15 – 16, 21 – 24, 28 – 31, Sept 5 – 6 at 7pm. For tickets and more information, call 401.218.0282 or visit contemporarytheatercompany.com

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