There's an all-white painting at the heart of Yasmina Reza's 'Art' that one of her three men, Serge, has shelled out 200,000 francs for. That monochromatic 5-by-4-foot painting remains the central focus for 85 minutes in this 1998 Tony Award winner because Serge's best friend, Marc, is offended by the purchase. For him, Serge's action not only represents a horrid surrender to the fraud of modern art but also a betrayal of their friendship. Caught in the middle of the dispute between Marc and Serge is Yvan, who knows little about modern art and cares even less. He'd just like to remain on amiable terms with each of them and wishes they'd settle their petty quarrel.
Not counting the current Three Bone Theatre production at UpStage, I've seen 'Art' three or four times since Judd Hirsch, one of the replacement players in the Broadway production, headed a memorable all-white touring production that played at Belk Theater in 2000. So I find myself feeling a certain amount of dread each time 'Art' resurfaces. Yet just like The Sound of Music, an older perennial that I'm duty-bound to review, I consistently find myself enjoying 'Art' more than I thought I would.
Obviously, there's a lot to find in Reza's script. All three men contain a wide latitude of possibilities for actors and directors to explore. Marc can be the intellectual Nazi that Hirsch portrayed, or he might be an insecure iconoclast who has lost his only meaningful follower. Serge can range from a mindless poseur who only thinks he grasps modern art to an educated, neophyte collector who knows as much as you'd expect a successful big-city dermatologist to grasp — and is genuinely baffled by Marc's notion that he, an aeronautical engineer, has been his cultural mentor.
Even Yvan's zigzagging vacillations are open to interpretation. Sure, they can easily be the manifestations of a spineless, obsequious wretch who peddles stationery. Or he might just be a decent man on the verge of marriage and midlife who is experiencing more stress and strife from his mom, fiancée and prospective in-laws than he can handle and is simply looking for peace and acceptance from his best friends.
Directing for the first time in Charlotte, Tommy Trull steers all three characters toward the more benign ends of these spectrums. With Joe Rux as Marc, Kristian Wedolowski as Serge, and Glenn T. Griffin as Yvan, Three Bone's is easily the most laugh-out-loud funny version of 'Art' that I've seen. Reducing the size of the canvas to 3 by 2 feet and rejecting Reza's call for a neutral set, Trull honors the intent of that neutrality.
There's a reason Reza put inverted commas around her title — and one thing the all-white version of 'Art' indubitably got right. We must prove ourselves capable of viewing the play with the same multiplicity of shifting perspectives that are bestowed upon the artwork within the play, even if it is as colorless as can be.
We must, simply put, see the artificiality of 'Art.' Trull takes a different path in showing us the artifice. Although only one scene uses all three men, they are always onstage, sitting off to one side when they exit. Trull only clears the stage once, inserting an intermission just before Yvan's babbling entrance into the long climactic three-person scene that takes up more than half of the show.
So once again we see that Reza is not only fascinated by the question of what we can legitimately label as art but also the vehemence of contrary opinions that a finite series of white brushstrokes on a white canvas can provoke, even to the extent of severing the bonds of friendships. But by underscoring the three-person scene and its multiple climaxes — and by subtly nudging his actors toward a different theme — Trull enables us to briefly glimpse something else.
More horrifying than the war between Serge and Marc is the dialectic that briefly erupts when these two men gang up on Yvan. The combatants have gone beyond acting childishly to incivility and viciousness, but their common demand that Yvan choose one side or the other is exactly where Reza's script pierces most deeply. Have we been siding with one of the disputants and absolutely dismissing and even detesting the other for his views — and are we contemptuous toward Yvan and ready to curse him as a peacemaker?
I wouldn't be the first critic to suggest that 'Art' is Reza's clever takedown of how men, as opposed to women, act and make a mess of things. But the world has shifted radically at least a couple of times since 1995 when the play premiered in Paris. Even since 2004, when Charlotte Rep produced the first homegrown edition, 'Art' seems to have grown more pertinent and profound than even Reza realized.
To me, the wrangling between Serge and Marc can't be completely separated from the bellicose dogmatism of Democrats and Republicans, Shiites and Sunnis, or ISIS and al-Qaida. Conciliators who stand on the side trying to placate the warriors and make them see reason really do seem to be weak and effeminate.
But enough election analysis. The fine chemistry that Trull has encouraged at UpStage enables us to see the strengths and weaknesses of all three men — and subtly gets us to check in with ourselves at moments when we're growing partisan.
Rux's rehab of Marc begins when he first laughs at the painting. Serge calls it a "vile, pretentious laugh" but Rux's laugh is too hearty and honestly tickled to be just that. This Marc isn't doing the male dominance thing with his laugh so much as seeing the folly of Serge's extravagance. Rux is also genuinely hurt when Serge denigrates his wife. He's also genuinely regretful when, after dismissing the painting that hangs in Yvan's apartment as rubbish, Serge informs him that it was painted by Yvan's father.
Expansive and trendy, Wedolowski lets us see the underbelly of Serge's cocksure sophistication. He has bought more than a painting, we see; he has bought the aura of an art collector and connoisseur. Watch him lounging at his place. Even the wine that he pours into his goblets, scrutinizes and pleasurably sips has been exalted in quality because it was acquired by a true connoisseur and bon vivant!
Yet both Wedolowski and Rux conspire to elevate the winsome comedy of Griffin as Yvan, browbeating him mercilessly one-on-one, looking alternately bored and exasperated during Yvan's epic wedding invitation narrative, and ganging up on him when the jig is inevitably up on his two-faced appeasements. Griffin is a lovably pathetic doormat and a hilarious weasel as he tries to climb off the merry-go-round of his duplicity.
At a certain point, Yvan's fundamental decency takes over, and Griffin is no less convincing when he calls Serge and Marc on their childishness. It's at that moment that Griffin put me in mind of something Alfred Molina, the original Yvan on Broadway, wrote in his introduction to Christopher Hampton's translation of 'Art.' Responding to a critic's dismissal of the work as a lightweight pretending to be major, he answered, "I'm convinced it is a masterpiece posing as a Boulevard romp."