Russ Hunt's Reviews

by Yasmina Reza

Theatre New Brunswick
February 2003

It's not difficult to see why Yasmina Reza's Art has become one of the most performed -- and most successful -- scripts of the last few years. For theatres and audiences hungry for a play that's actually about something, for a serious play that's funny, and for funny lines that don't depend on the speaker being totally oblivious of the humor, Art looks like a godsend. Moreover, it's wonderfully efficient: one multipurpose set, three actors, one painting. If you're strapped for resources, as most theatres seem to be these days, it's a play you can put on without looking as though you're cutting corners -- unlike the work of, for example, Tom Stoppard, which in some ways it resembles.

The premise is pretty straightforward. Serge has just bought a painting. It's a classic example of the sort of "modern art" which seems designed to scandalize those who Don't Know Much About Art, but Know What They Like (think of the National Gallery's purchase of "Voice of Fire" a few years ago). His friend Marc thinks he's not only a sucker, but a pretentious one; that he's buying in to the pseudo-aristocratic snobbishness of connoisseurship and patronage that sets up shibboleths of "taste" and sneers at those who don't get it. "Suddenly, in some grotesque way," he says, "Serge fancies himself as a collector .... From now on, our friend Serge is one of the great connoisseurs." Their mutual friend, Yvan, too preoccupied with his own upcoming (and clearly disastrous) wedding to care much about the painting, tries in vain to mediate between the increasingly alienated friends.

In some ways, Reza's script is a disappointment. On the basis of the premise and the opening scenes, one might hope there would be some actual concern with the serious issues -- why, after all, do some of us pay what seem outrageous amounts for objects which, to others, are nothing but "white shit"? Why do we invest so much in our taste in art, and feel so violated when our friends hate what we love? Why do we care so violently when we're patronized (as, at one point, Marc does when Serge airily tells him that, in order to understand modernism, he should "read Seneca")? In a pattern that will be familiar to anybody who's followed the standard decline of individual television series, though, the attention drifts away from the substance to the relationships; we stop hearing about the real issues that divide the friends and start hearing pop psychology about the nature of their friendship, and the funny lines are less often about art and more often about personality. The rationale for this is familiar, as well: "Nothing good has ever come of rational argument" is almost a motto for the play.

Theatre New Brunswick's production is a solid, professional rendering of the script, one which emphasizes this pattern by choosing to go for the audience's funnybone rather than its frontal lobes, and one which capitalizes on the talent of the three solid professionals who make up the cast. All three, in quite different ways, have the ability to pull a laugh out of an audience, and David Sherren's direction gave them their head.

Norm Foster, whose writing and acting is of course well known to Theatre New Brunswick audiences, is a convincingly arrogant and condescending pretender to artistic sophistication, striding about the stage in his not-quite-good-enough suit and bringing his new painting on and off for his friends' -- and our -- admiration. His defensive reading of "I didn't say, 'read Seneca,' I said 'read Seneca'" was worth the price of admission.

Also familiar to TNB audiences is C. David Johnson (most recently seen here as the brother in Prisoner of Second Avenue), who makes Marc into a knot of barely controlled anger and frustration. I particularly admired the venom he inserts into the phrase "the artist," as he accuses Serge of elevating the painter into a god figure in order to aggrandize his own ownership of the painting.

Simon Bradbury's a TNB newcomer, with extensive experience at the Shaw Festival and Stratford among other places. His Yvan is an exaggerated bundle of stress and nerves, unable to understand exactly what's at stake between his two friends, and driven to distraction by the competing demands of various parties to his upcoming wedding. His extraordinary explanation of his lateness for an appointment, complete with detailed accounts of various phone calls, is a comic turn worthy of most of the standup comics I've seen in recent years.

Between the three of them, the evening (it's a longish one-acter) is consistently punctuated with laughter, right from the opening tableau, as Marc and Serge look at the painting and we know exactly what Marc must be thinking. Whether we could have come to understand and perhaps feel more about their relationship (there's not much feeling in this production that the relationship is as longstanding or as deep as the script repeatedly says it is) seems rather beside the point of this production, which is the continuous flow of laughs. It's not clear to me that Reza actually has much to tell us about men's relationships: I suspect she might have had rather more to say about the function of art in our lives, and it's not clear to me whether another approach to the script might have made us care a bit more about these relationships. When, at the end, when Marc seems to be talking himself into taking Serge's painting seriously, there's a kind of pathos that suggests Reza expected us to care: "My friend Serge, who's one of my oldest friends, has bought a painting. It's a canvas about five foot by four. It represents a man who moves across a space and disappears." But I'm not convinced the characters are fully enough imagined to let us believe that they were once friends and that this disruption is profound or painful. When Marc, halfway through, suddenly begins talking about his regret that he's no longer Serge's mentor in affairs of the art, we wonder where this idea came from; it's as though it had just been invented. Reza has said that she thinks the play is more a tragedy than a comedy; but if she intended us to care about these people she needs to have offered us more to care about.

It seems, in any case, that Sherren's choice worked: although the size of the opening night audience must have been a disappointment, their consistent laughter ought to have been gratifying. Whether the word of mouth will bring larger houses is yet to be seen; but clearly TNB's hard times aren't close to over (you could see this from the thin program, stuffed with advertising and pretty much bare of content beyond the perfunctory bios of cast and crew).

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