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The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Jack Willis, Judd Hirsch, and Cotter Smith find breaking up hard to do

In a starkly furnished Paris apartment, spectator Marc (Judd Hirsch) circles a white canvas with the wary step of a big-game hunter while Serge (Cotter Smith) looks on expectantly; we can't help but wonder if it is the art, or his best friend, that Marc is about ready to attack. Later, when Yvan (Jack Willis) asks his two best friends how they have reached such a crisis point over a simple white square, he's not exaggerating. Serge, a dermatologist, has purchased a piece of modern art for 200,000 francs, and Marc loathes the idea that his long-time friend has just paid so much money for what appears to be nothing more than a white canvas. Yvan tries to act as mediator, but in trying to please them, he ignites a quarrel that forces the trio to re-evaluate the direction and meaning of their friendship. Like the stage itself, which is both barren and full of possibilities, the canvas -- a fourth character really -- appears alternately ridiculous, intriguing, ominous, menacing, and ingenious. Art asks what happens when we can no longer relate to our friends. But if you think you are going to get a pat answer to this question and an erudite look at the art world, think again. Art's brilliant and organic use of satire reaches beyond comedy, into the hilarious drama of the human heart and its feckless sidekick, ego. The excellent acting and superb script transform the Coconut Grove Playhouse's main stage into a blank space redolent with the gradations of comedy and drama essential to interesting theater.

Dominated by color, shape, form, and impression, the Modernist style tends to be more abstract and subjective than earlier schools of painting. Much like the white-on-white canvas of painter Robert Ryman (the "maximal minimalist" who helped revolutionize the school of monochromatic, abstract paintings), the work of Art's fictional painter, Antrios, is about brushstrokes, opacity, sheen, and so on. "As far as I'm concerned, it's not white," Serge says. Marc, on the other hand, retorts, "It's a white piece of “shit.'"

Is the painting a blank canvas or a great work? Obviously Art is a parody of the art world, its patrons, critics, and collectors. It raises questions about what is considered art, the validity of abstract art and Modernism, and who assigns aesthetic and monetary value to a work of art. Part of the play's success comes from its intimate knowledge of a specific aspect of the art world: that of the amateur collector. For example Serge explains his acquisition by commenting: "It's a Seventies Antrios -- that's important to know." And he replies to Marc's inquiry about whether the painting was expensive by noting, "In absolute terms, yes. In fact, no."

But Art also is about the nature of friendship. The play approaches with humor and frankness the difficulties that arise in human relations owing to envy, competitiveness, and downright insecurity. French playwright Yasmina Reza makes us delve deep into that well reserved for relationships -- of all kinds. We discover that we can fear losing our friends as much as our lovers, and that we can go to any length, including destruction, to prevent this. As modern art asks us to see art differently from what's offered in pictures, with their narrative connotations, this play asks us to look at friendship as something as volatile and emotional as marriage, something as complicated and important as any other love relationship, and it succeeds. Art goes further in exploring human relations by using the metaphor of friendship than do most plays that claim to plumb the depths of love. During the course of the play, Marc, Serge, and Yvan discover they have inherently different attitudes, opinions, and ways of behaving, and as a consequence the very basis of their friendship is challenged. But friendship is more valuable than a work of art -- or is it?

Even the most realistic portrayal must be revealed through a specific lens. Art's combination of satire and the brilliantly modulated energy of the actors helps make realism interesting theater. One of those aspects is perspective. Satire would be considered simply ridicule if it were presented as one person's biased point of view, but the satire in Art is successful because both Serge and Marc are smugly convinced of the veracity of their opinions. The conflict that this provokes makes for an almost forensic theatrical experience while opening up a Pandora's box of vulnerability. While uproariously laughing at Yvan's dizzying account of his horrible day, which later becomes a sobering admission of his failure in life, one experiences the inherent duality of drama: Laughter is as complicated as tears.

The textual richness of Reza's script is both its virtue and its challenge. Director Judd Hirsch must modulate a verbally dense (and uninterrupted) 90 minutes that takes place on a predominately static set. The director and actors take advantage of the script's alternating scenes and asides to break up the rapid fire of this catty, intellectual dialogue.

The movement from two actors onstage to three actors keeps the play flowing so the hour and a half without an intermission is not cumbersome. It is key that the play is not interrupted, as it is a steadily mounting discourse that has its own denouement based on a verbal progression, not on dramatic action. Save for one stellar moment, there is little in the way of such action.

Also stellar is the acting. As director and star, Judd Hirsch is exceptional. Both wise and cantankerous, antagonistic and affectionate, Hirsch's Marc is touching and humorous. As the actor who probably possesses the most range in this production, he exquisitely balances the sarcastic comments with the serious dialogues.

Yvan turns out to be much more than a foil for the characters of Serge and Marc. At the end his revelations are as powerful as those of the other two characters, and his performance is charged with emotion and energy. Willis's mastery of gesture is keen. As he paces, wrings his hands, throws his arms up with an air of surrender, he does not concede to sentimentality but rather becomes the much needed emotional counterpoint to Marc and Serge's cerebral natures.

Cotter Smith's Serge is both the acid and the base in this equation. He is the one who has purchased this troublesome piece of art. But his character also is the most subdued of the three. Art is a play of constant antagonism, and each actor reveals his character gradually, using the conflict as fodder for development rather than creating the characters as inherently conflicting. This shows in the fact that each character is equally formed. The three sides of the triangle are even, yet we never feel one actor's character demands the entire stage. Like master jugglers, each is constantly aware of his fellow performers, giving the dialogue a ferocious rhythm and flow without making it merely a monotonous match of wits.

Reza wrote the script in French, and it is brilliantly translated into English by Christopher Hampton. Yet one wonders if this translation couldn't be taken just a bit further. Hirsch, Willis, and Smith's portrayals, as well as the references to the art scene, are so appropriately and outrageously New York, we could well have traded francs for dollars. At any rate, whether art is purchased in deutsch marks, rubles, or francs, it can change people irrevocably as this must-see production proves.


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