In Art, currently onstage at the Springs Ensemble Theatre, director Sarah S. Shaver navigates playwright Yasmina Reza's fickle and wavering stance on the titular subject with whimsical indecision. As Shaver and Reza would have it, art never really enters into Art, only takes it on loan.
Yet Reza has had commercial success worldwide with Art (1994), and more recently God of Carnage (2008). Both plays fared prosperously on Broadway, and Carnage was subsequently filmed by Roman Polanski. In both, Reza allows minor incidents among the affluent to balloon into hyperbole and self-deception, revealing, effectively at times, the shallow expediency and trendiness they employ to explain themselves.
In Art, Reza's set-up arrives in the form of a painting that Serge (Emory John Collinson), a Paris dermatologist, has purchased for what his friend Marc (Aaron Jennejahn), an aeronautical engineer, believes is a fool's sum of 200,000 Euros.
A white canvas with a white, Franz Kline-ish smear across it, like acrylic cake frosting, the work is inscrutable and frustrating, but clearly inspired by the likes of Kazimir Malevich. Reza is in error suggesting that its creator possesses the same marshmallow center that Marc and Serge do — though Marc does his sophomoric best to expose the artist as a fraud.
Palatability, not confrontation with a vital art form or aesthetic, is Reza's overall purpose here. Even a volume by philosopher Seneca — its contents completely unexamined — is absently fingered by Marc and Serge like a bachelor's home accessory. Nothing could be further from their minds than what either the philosopher, or the artist, actually means.
So the nature of Serge and Marc's friendship becomes the issue instead, Marc taking an extreme position that Serge's purchase invalidates his value as a friend. Serge must go on the offensive to reclaim that supposedly precious friendship, but can't (or won't) to Marc's satisfaction. Enter mutual buddy Yvan (Matt Radcliffe), a wholesale stationery salesman who faces disquieting nuptials, and Reza sets the stage for male combustibility.
But her blanket passivity keeps such pyrotechnics from detonating, and prevents Art from convincing even on its own shaky premises. Actions, such as a down-and-dirty fight between Marc and Serge, and a bonding ritual with a felt-tip pen, seem shoehorned-in by Reza. We see Marc and Serge sometimes hotly debating, but wonder what set them off so suddenly. All Serge can really accuse Marc of is having "lost his sense of humor," causing Marc to make the grand appraisal that Serge's acquisition is "shit." So what's all the fuss about, guys?
Some of this is attributable to the performances and direction at SET. Art has secured over the years as a necessity some of the best actors around — Judd Hirsch, Albert Finney and Michael O'Keefe to name a few — who can make visible the subterranean elements of a character. Actors at SET, as previously, force each other to underplay their roles, perhaps in a cautious effort to keep from distancing their audiences. Such restraint is neither desirable or necessary, and important lines are lost even at close audience proximity.
But is it Shaver or Reza who is keeping the lid down? Often we're not sure, but are glad Radcliffe (who, by way of disclosure, used to work as an Indy graphic designer) gives the character his due and lifts the play with his familiar and refreshing humanity. Threaten Radcliffe onstage with any type of bodily harm, and a tragicomic fount of small revelations results.
Collinson conveys all the arrogance and snobbery requisite of his nouveau status, but keeps his exchanges with Marc, unfortunately, consistently tepid. Their scenes don't go in the direction Reza maps out for them, never escalate, but remain monochromatically static.