Theater Review: ART (San Francisco Playhouse)

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by Jim Allen on October 28, 2020

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area,Virtual


Yasmina Reza’s oft-produced Art (English translation by Christopher Hampton) may be singularly responsible for the current plethora of new plays today with one set, a small cast, and billed as “Ninety Minutes No Intermission.” 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.) Yes, the Tony-winning script is ultimately a bit slender (some characters speak directly to us to explicate what should be dramatized), but Art remains a guilty pleasure for me.

The story, about three long-time friends who are at odds over a painting one of them has bought, is splendidly simple and funny, making the meaty 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 San Francisco Playhouse, which has produced a fully-staged, filmed production that “opened” last Saturday night. I applaud SFP for creating streaming ZOOM-free theater in the age of COVID, and although the on-demand production is rough around the edges, it’s worth a look to anyone who hasn’t seen Art before.

Art at SF Playhouse.
Serge (Johnny Moreno, right) shows off his new painting to Marc (Jomar Tagatac, left).

As I’ve written before, 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.

The story is that Serge (Johnny Moreno) has bought a purely white painting offset with nothing but three white lines at an exorbitant price. His longtime friend Marc (Jomar Tagatac), 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 (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari), who exacerbates the tension between his friends when he ambivalently sides with both of them.

Art at SF Playhouse.
Yvan (Bobak Bakhtiari) and Serge (Johnny Moreno) laugh about Serge's new painting.

The most successful actor is Mr. Bakhtiari, who presents a believable character with Yvan, who has troubles of his own with women and wedding plans. SF Playhouse regular Mr. Moreno is a more reserved Serge than I have seen in the past, but he has added a few layers here for the haughty and hurt man who works overtime to hide his need for approval. Mr. Tagatac begins out-of-step, low-key and lacking intensity with his role at first, but comes around during the climactic scene.

Art is a light entertainment, and it remains so in this effort, which really feels like a tech-week rehearsal (this is where an audience’s laughter and gasps are sorely missing to fuel the energy). A spinning triptych centerstage is perfect to create a new location, and the costumes are perfection. It’s odd that a taped version has some flubbed and unmotivated lines, and forced laughter from Mr. Tagatac. This also begged to be more creatively shot (there is no cinematographer credit, so I assume Mr. English helmed both the staged and taped renditions), but allowances can be made for a fledgling try from this esteemed company. Heaven knows the struggles for theatermakers now, so I ask you to support art by watching Art.

Art at SF Playhouse. The dispute over the white painting between Marc (Jomar Tagatac),
Yvan (Bobak Bakhtiari), and Serge (Johnny Moreno) reaches a tipping point.

photos courtesy of San Francisco Playhouse

San Francisco Playhouse
on demand through November 7, 2020 EXTENDED through November 21, 2020
for tickets, call 415-677-9596 or visit SF Playhouse

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