Three Men and an Easel

There's a reason everyone loves Art.

Everybody loves Art. Yasmina Reza’s Tony award-winning comedy has charmed local audiences ever since the Broadway touring production starring Judd Hirsch hit San Francisco’s Curran Theater in 1999. San Jose Rep put on a production in 2002, as did the Palo Alto Players, the Ross Valley Players, the Solano Collage Theatre, and lord knows who else. The production from Playhouse West that opened at Walnut Creek’s Dean Lesher Center on November 12 won’t be the last time Contra Costans get to see it this season: Lafayette’s Town Hall Theatre Company will take a crack at it next March. No doubt it’s only a matter of time until someone slaps an exclamation point on the end and makes it a musical.

The play has been so popular, in fact, that it’s strange that it’s taken so long for anyone around here to explore the rest of the French-Iranian playwright’s oeuvre: Marin Theatre Company finally gave one of her other works its local premiere last Tuesday with Amy Glazer’s staging of Life x 3, a comedy about three separate doomsday scenarios for the same dinner party, running through December 12.

It’s easy to see why smaller companies have taken to Art so readily. It’s a very tidy play, with only three actors and minimal technical requirements. It’s also a really, really smart script. It’s not so much about art as about friendship, what its nature and basis is, and what is to be done if that basis seems to be called into question, or assumed but never truly agreed upon in the first place.

The setup is simple: Marc is upset that his best friend Serge has spent 200,000 francs on a trendy artist’s all-white abstract painting, a white background with diagonal white lines that you pretty much have to take his word for. He can’t believe any friend of his could be so taken in by modern art hype as to spend a bundle on a plain white canvas. Serge in turn thinks that Marc is being insufferably condescending, and their entire friendship is called into question. Their infinitely agreeable friend Yvan is caught in the crossfire, trying to keep the peace by agreeing with both of them about the other.

The play’s structure also has an elegant simplicity. Marc’s introductory monologue yields to a scene of Serge and Marc at Serge’s, then Marc and Yvan at Yvan’s, then Serge and Yvan at Serge’s, then Marc and Yvan at Marc’s, then Marc and Serge at Serge’s, eventually joined by Yvan. Almost every scene is bookended by short soliloquies that tidily set up the action to follow and leave little room for misinterpretation, the last a haunting echo of the first. Serge is divorced, Marc is cohabiting, and Yvan is about to get married, but we learn very little about the women in their lives. Their occupations draw an even clearer distinction, as well as a sort of hierarchy between them: Serge is a successful dermatologist, so he’s seemingly stuck on surface appearances; Marc is an aeronautical engineer, so he needs things to make sense; and Yvan is just getting started in his fiancée’s uncle’s stationery business, so he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

Doug Ham’s set for the Playhouse West production is simple, too, plain and white like the painting: white walls, a white couch and loveseat with white pillows, a small gilded coffee table with a glass top, and a sleek steel-and-black easel sitting off to the side, resembling some kind of Nautilus machine. One of the tensest moments, perversely enough, is when Yvan is hunting for the cap of his marker, because you’re sure he’s going to mark the nice white loveseat with the uncapped pen. Marc’s and Yvan’s apartments are distinguished from Serge’s only by a different painting on the wall of each: a colorful abstract one on Yvan’s and a serene view of a castle through the window of another castle on Marc’s. Because Yvan’s picture is referred to as a “motel painting” by both Marc and Serge (they call it a “daub” in Hampton’s original translation from the French, but changing it to a more accessible term was a good call), it’s unfortunate that it’s actually much better looking than Marc’s hokey landscape, which is presumably intended to elicit classical taste rather than simple love of kitsch. Serge’s white painting isn’t mounted on the wall at all, but is brought out onto the easel for examination as if it were a silent fourth character rather than a highbrow MacGuffin introduced simply to set things in motion.

Artistic director Lois Grandi, who directs pretty much everything Playhouse West does, gives Art as tidy a production as befits such a tidy play, keeping it down to an hour and a half with no intermission. Each soliloquy is set off by dimmed lights and a spotlight that seems a little too obvious, like the shimmery effect on TV shows that indicates a flashback (lighting design by Chris Guptill), but overall the production is as stripped-down and no-frills as the script demands. It’s a strong, workmanlike rendition of a fascinating work of art, and that in itself is enough to recommend it.

The performances, too, are just as they ought to be. Steve Freyer gives Serge a subtle mixture of smugness, stubbornness, and brittle vulnerability, and Michael Keys Hall is appropriately glum and glowering as Marc, with a seriousness that borders on petulance. It’s as if everything about them is designed to rub each other the wrong way. They’re never so tense and passive-aggressive as when they’re trying to be nice to each other, and the casual cruelty both of them display toward Yvan as if he were a stray Jujube on their checkerboard seems deliciously offhand. They’re painfully aware of each other’s reactions, but don’t seem to realize that Yvan might, say, object to their spiteful advice that he cancel his upcoming wedding. It’s scarcely any wonder, really: Alex Robertson’s Yvan is amiable almost to the point of being a cipher, and doesn’t seem to be struggling to keep the peace so much as just going with the flow, but when he finally blows his top he spits out his bravura monologue as if in a single breath and earns the burst of applause it’s designed to elicit.

Beverly Merrick’s casual costumes add subtly to the disconnect between the characters: Serge offsets his white apartment and white painting with an all-black ensemble and a black-and-white handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. Marc is dressed in a more professorial outfit — brown and light-blue sportcoat and tie — while Yvan is as casual in jeans and a striped shirt as he is in demeanor.

For all its tidiness and artfully arranged parts, Art is ultimately more than the sum of those parts. Its strength is in its subtlety, not in the point it’s making — despite the highbrow subject matter implied in the title, the script is anything but arcane — but in its tone. It’s a serious comedy, in such a way that despite all the funny bits it’s easy to forget it’s a comedy at all. The punchlines come and go without a great deal of fuss, but the heady questions it raises linger. Just as Art is a play about a painting that isn’t really about the painting at all, it’s also a comedy about tragedy — about growing apart, the limits of friendship, and how the simplest thing can make matters almost irreparably complicated. Just like Serge’s painting — or unlike it, if you like — there’s a hell of a lot more to the artful simplicity of Art than initially meets the eye.

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