Arguments and loneliness loom large in Yasmina Reza’s "Art"
By Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton. A Gateway Theatre production. At the Gateway Theatre, on Friday, February 7. Continues until February 22
Yasmina Reza’s “Art”, which is peopled by three male French intellectuals, is funny and smart—and it keeps its distance.
Serge, a well-off Parisian dermatologist, has just bought a white-on-white painting for 200,000 francs, which would have been about $40,000 in 1994, when the play premiered. Serge’s friend Marc is appalled, even angered, by the purchase. He feels that Serge is being pretentious and describes the painting as a white piece of shit. Their conciliatory pal, Yvan, likes the painting more when he’s talking to Serge and less when he’s talking to Marc. For this, Marc calls Yvan a spineless amoeba. There’s a lot of insult humour in the play: at times, it’s kind of an intellectual Punch and Judy show.
In Reza’s finest passage of comic writing, Yvan delivers a long, explosive monologue about the frustrations of domestic life: he’s getting married, and the negotiations about whose stepmothers’ names are going to appear on the invitations has turned into a nightmarish female power struggle that he’s trying to avoid by hanging out with his buddies.
Structurally, the script is at its most clever in its arguments about art. Sitting in the audience, it was fascinating to observe how Reza yanked me back and forth, angering me by pandering to the hostility that non-figurative painting can still provoke, then calming me by making the case for its conceptual and perceptual subtleties.
It’s a little weird that, in a 1994 script, Reza treats a white-on-white painting as if it were the latest, trendiest thing. Robert Rauschenberg created his revolutionary white paintings in 1951. But Reza is more interested in the dynamics of argument than in art itself, and her real subject is friendship. The potential tragedy lurking beneath the comedy is that these three best friends might lose one another. Aching loneliness is waiting in the wings.
This is the heart of the play and also its least successful element—mostly because it’s hard to understand what these guys ever saw in each another. Serge is deathly chilly—when Yvan cries, Serge dismisses his tears as pathetic—and Marc is a domineering dickhead. The real reason that Marc is pissed about Serge’s purchase is that it proves that Marc can no longer control what Serge thinks.
Part of the likability problem, I suspect, is Hiro Kanagawa’s performance as Serge. The character laughs, but there’s little warmth, humour—or vulnerability—in Kanagawa’s portrait. Then again, Michael Kopsa finds passion and pain in Marc and the character remains irredeemable in my view. Playing Yvan, Haig Sutherland delivers yet another stellar performance. Sutherland is a miraculous combination of responsiveness and technique; when Yvan cries, it’s at once painfully credible and absurd.
Spending time with Reza’s men is stimulating, but, too often, impersonally so.