If I had to single out my biggest gripe with theatre in Los Angeles, it would be that it embodies a stereotype at which I would prefer to roll my eyes: that everything here is rife with superficiality. To deliver the eye roll, however, this needs to be untrue. Or at least less true. Which is why I am kind of pissed off by Pasadena Playhouse’s airy revival of Yasmina Reza’s 90-minute three-hander, Art.
One of Reza’s abundant gifts is finding the questionably innocuous catalyst that constitutes the story-that-is-not-the-story. In Art, it is the 200,000-euro painting that Serge purchased: a debatably white painting—as the extent of the painting’s whiteness constitutes a comedic motif—on a white canvas. Is this purchase enough to end a friendship? It could be.
Early-to-mid-forties Marc, Serge and Yvan go way back. Serge (Michael O’Keefe) is a dermatologist by day and art snob by night who spends a substantial amount of time trolling galleries and collecting, or at least starting to collect, a fact that irks equally arrogant Marc (Bradley Whitford) to no end. Roger Bart’s Yvan, initially pitch-perfect and then disappointingly one-note, is the neurotic would-be peacemaker to his overbearing friends, a role that extends to all arenas of his existence as he relays the nearly constant cow-towing to the unseen fiancée. Delightfully and paradoxically, he is the most unhinged and the most sane.
By way of comedic asides—it is always delightful when characters break the fourth wall but then they have to remember to, y’know, reestablish it because were these guys ever aware of the appreciative audience—we are immediately immersed in the story, the entirety of which takes place in present-day Paris in the three characters’ apartments: Serge bought a painting toward which Marc can barely conceal his contempt, both for its composition as well as his conviction that Serge has drastically overspent. An unwitting Yvan who has enough problems of his own, and then some, is drafted into the milieu as Serge and Marc struggle to articulate the source of their animosity for one another by means of that which is so nauseating regarding both gesture and reception.
Wrought with high-brow art- and academia-speak (“deconstruction”; the nature of “modernity”; allusions to Seneca and a disregard for another character’s apparently quotidian, run-of-the-mill, Flemish aesthetic), this struggle for articulation is great good fun, both for the judgmental quips regarding pretension as well as for the fact that these men are ignorant of the extent to which they are pretentious. Reza’s work is meant to unsettle: Pasadena Playhouse and theatre in general draw a very specific crowd that prides itself not necessarily on knowing every dropped name but for understanding the semantics of this argument.
And how damn foolish we look reflected onstage.
To make a crass and gross oversimplification of the major themes of this play, we behold the parameters and power dynamics of relationships being respectively tested and shifted. One logically knows that the stakes are high and yet, there is not much action fueled by this reality. The more satisfying choice would be better locating the barely concealed contempt and ugliness boiling just beneath the surface. It is that desperation, that disillusionment, that despondency that punctuates the comedy and creates the tension.
As an example, Yvan eventually breaks down over the battle in which he is unwittingly embroiled and how the evolution of the argument (well past the purchase of the painting at this point) extends to affect him. This was a moment played for comedy and devoid of implosion, rendering it an instance of caricature instead of a revelation of character. Indeed, the laughs result from the literary and the situational, not because of the theatrical and certainly not because of the dramatic.
To his credit, Mr. Whitford tried to take it there. It was a pleasure to watch him organically search for and find—only to perfectly punctuate—the most suiting of words and to grapple with why, precisely, Serge’s purchase constituted a cataclysmic betrayal. As fans of The West Wing will delight in learning, Mr. Whitford does not play a character far removed from his beloved Josh. Portraying Marc as an intelligent, vulnerable and immensely appealing ass, Mr. Whitford continues to be the most believable person in the scene and the most naturalistic of the three actors. Though finding the emotionality of Yvan would have rounded out his performance, it was the thousand nuances—like licking the salt off the empty cashew bowl—that made Mr. Bart endearing and impressive, and he delivers the monologue to end all monologues in terms of diction and speed that in it and of itself would entice me to go back just to hear once more.
Mr. O’Keefe’s Serge, however, failed to adequately defend himself against Marc’s antagonism. In order for this play to be a fight about a painting-cum-devolution of a friendship, we need to hear both sides of the argument, and of every argument, for that matter. At times compelling in his criticism of Marc and other times simply forgettable, Mr. O’Keefe was substantially overshadowed by his considerably stronger co-stars.
With a beautiful set design that takes advantage of the cavernous proscenium stage, Tom Buderwitz captures an austere, unspecific modernity obvious to even the most art historically-challenged of theatergoers, its white-and-gray palate contrasting nicely—insofar as barely at all—with the whitish painting, an intentional and appreciated irony. The light design punctuated the asides but remained understated for the remainder of the production, a choice in keeping with the studied minimalism of the directorial concept.
Speaking of which… My true complaint with this production lies with David Lee’s direction. (And whether or not this makes me ignorant or simply unjust, never with the writing: the intelligently written dark comedy is rare and I patiently waited a long while to see a regional revival of this 1998 Tony-winning comedy whose translation by Christopher Hampton is impeccable given how well the humor applies to an American theatrical context, almost too much so since we forget we are watching a play set in Paris save for the references to the currency.) All three actors have to laugh onstage over the course of the play. More often than not, this looked contrived. These characters laugh for a million reasons and also just, well, two: because what they are fighting about is preposterous and because it’s not. Oh that they could have found the “not.”
Photos via Pasadena Playhouse