Los Angeles Theater Review: ART (The Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on February 9, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

ART OR NOT, IT’S A FUN PLAY

Yasmina Reza’s oft-produced Art (English translation by Christopher Hampton) may be singularly responsible for the current plethora of new plays today billed as “Ninety Minutes No Intermission.” The story, about three long-time friends who are at odds over a painting one of them has bought, is splendidly simple and very funny, making the meaty subject matter easy to digest. Since premiering in France in 1994, the play is constantly being produced around the world (it has been translated in over 30 languages); and not just in storefront theaters, but larger venues such as The Pasadena Playhouse, where a most satisfying production currently resides. Its popularity lays in its ability to please a large variety of theatregoers, especially with a cast as adroit as the one now on hand.

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Art is a comedy of manners that retains a scholarly coating. Intellectuals will be thrilled by the discussion of aesthetics and post-modernistic ideas such as “deconstruction.” Urbanites will identify with the underdeveloped and rather common characters as they struggle with puffery and sophistication. And hidden beneath the laughter, there is the profound sadness and loneliness that we’ve all felt when a friendship goes awry. But not too sad…the characters remain friends (if somewhat ambiguously), leaving us with an evening of superficially thought-provoking theater.

la-et-ARTAnother reason it’s frequently staged is because  producers and regional theaters love that the single set and tiny cast don’t require a large budget. Art is a cash cow, and it’s no wonder that so many playwrights seem to be emulating Reza’s ingredients for a hit play. (Even Reza followed Reza with the equally superficial ninety-minute, intermissionless God of Carnage.)

The story is that Serge (Michael O’Keefe) has bought a purely white painting offset with nothing but three white lines at an exorbitant price. His longtime friend Marc (Bradley Whitford), who prefers traditional art, sees the purchase as showy, even going so far as to call it “a piece of shit.” But is Marc more upset with the painting itself or his friend’s stab at pomposity for buying it? Into the mix comes the deferential Yvan (Roger Bart), who exacerbates the tension between his friends when he ambivalently sides with both of them.

Art, Roger Bart, Bradley Whitford, Michael O’Keefe. David Lee, Yasmina Reza, Christopher HamptonArt is a light entertainment, but has a serious issue that can easily bog down a production with lesser actors: We really have no idea why these three middle-class guys are friends. While the three actors – under David Lee’s stylish direction – are all at the top of their game, they are stylistically set apart; fortunately, their individual capabilities more than compensate for this (that we still do not buy them as friends of fifteen years is more the fault of the playwright than the actors).

By far, the standout is the foxy and mischievous Roger Bart, who astonishes in his ability to present a believable character with Yvan, who has troubles of his own with women and wedding plans. Mr. Bart incorporates old-school, comic timing reminiscent of the Catskills; he is a master of sharp, physical comic landings at the end of a line – the eyebrow-raise, the misaligned head, the knee-pop – that in no way delineate from the authenticity of his character. Almost shockingly, Bart chooses a more subdued approach to the famous monologue in which Yvan hysterically relates his problems about wedding invitations, yet his every move and inflection are magnificent, easily reaching the back of the theater and making this hilarious recounting a sure-fire showstopper.

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Bradley Whitford is more cinematic in his approach: physically aloof and vocally low-key; his intensity seems somehow premeditated, but is no less spot-on. There is a sardonic superiority to his Marc that suits him well, although it is a performance that may not reach the back of the house. Michael O’Keefe is a more reserved Serge than I have seen in the past, but it is a perfect choice for the haughty and hurt man who works overtime to hide his need for approval.

Tom Buderwitz’s set is quite spectacular, with giant gray squares that mimic minimalist one-tone paintings; Kate Bergh is responsible for the appropriate costumes, Jared A. Sayeg the lights and Philip G. Allen the sound.

Yes, the script is slender and overly produced, and even these three actors are still settling in with each other, but Art, at ninety minutes and no intermission, remains a guilty pleasure.

photos by Jim Cox

Art
Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue in Pasadena
Tues-Friday at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on February 19, 2012
for tickets, call 626-356-7529 or visit Pasadena Playhouse

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