Watching “Art,” a highly stylized play by Yasmina Reza, is not unlike being courtside at a ferociously fought tennis match. Instead of a ball, the playwright’s sporting object of choice is language; or, rather, the use of language to weaponize points of view, emotions, intellect, and taste—or lack thereof.
This 20th anniversary production of “Art,” which was named Best Play at the Tony Awards when it debuted in 1999, runs through June 9 at Penguin Rep in Stony Point (Rockland County). For information: PenguinRep.org; 845-786-2873.
Because there are three characters on stage, we’re not watching a singles match or a doubles match. It’s something in between that defies easy description, though the word triangulation most easily comes to mind. (A case could be made that there’s a fourth character on stage, which is the stunner of a set. It’s the creation of the talented sibling team of Christopher and Justin Swader, who have devised a rear wall that quickly swivels to differentiate between the disparately decorated homes of the three friends.)
This trio is comprised of somewhat eccentric avatars of male camaraderie, peppered with anomie. (Any evidence of bonhomie is in short supply for the 85 minutes we are in the company of the battling bosom buddies.)
As we meet them, Serge, a dermatologist, has just paid $200,000 for a painting so chic and modern, it’s hard to discern what you’re looking at. It’s a five-foot-by-four-foot canvas of “white on white,” though there’s a difference of opinion as to whether the diagonal lines that dapple the painting are also white, or grey.
Serge has forked over $200,000 to buy the painting, which has had a life-changing effect on his social life: “I can’t afford to go out,” he moans. “I’m ruined!”
Serge’s good friend, Marc, an aeronautical engineer, is incredulous at the very sight of the painting. Marc is equally aghast at its outsize cost. Being the close friend he is, Marc badgers Serge mercilessly over the budget-busting impulse purchase.
Then there’s their mutual friend Yvan, a nebbishy type sympathetically drawn by Jonathan Spivey. He could be a doppelganger for George Costanza in “Seinfeld.” Come to think of it, “Art,” in its affection for irony and male mayhem as comic devices, bears a certain resemblance to a Seinfeld episode.
Mr. Spivey just about stops the show with a hilarious monologue mocking the hierarchy of parents’ names on a wedding invitation. His hands wringing and body writhing, the actor turns his solo turn into a delightfully diverting one-man show within the show.
As fashioned by the mischievous Ms. Reza, in “Art,” otherwise innocuous phrases are fraught with not-so-hidden meaning.
Words ricochet in a way that renders them weapons of mutual destruction. “You’ve lost your sense of humor,” they say to each other. It serves as their defiant code for, “When I criticize you, you need to stand there and take it.”
Marc, played by Brian Sgambati with a perfectly haughty air, comes off as a high-handed narcissist. This alpha male’s idea of friendship requires that he controls, and you comply. Serge, however, smoothly played by Josh Powell with a disarming charm, is having none of it. It’s his painting, and he’s sticking to it, no matter how over-priced or meaningless Marc thinks it is.
Caught in the middle is poor Yvan (“I’m not a punching bag!”). In this tennis match, he is like a hapless chair umpire who keeps getting caught in the crossfire of shots sailing out of bounds.
As I watched, I thought, boy, am I glad my friends are not at each other’s jugular all the time like this. As Yvan himself asks, why would you even stay friends if in a constant state of agitation?
Penguin Rep artistic director Joe Brancato helped me out with this puzzlement. He told me that the European culture in which the playwright was raised treats male bonding more intimately and openly than we Americans. If that means men calling each other out brazenly as a matter of course, so be it. In other words, we tend to internalize, while they intend to externalize.
If Ms. Reza’s characters in Art at times start to teeter toward caricatures, that’s attributable to the “heightened sense of reality” that Joe Brancato says is her desired effect. He amps up the effect with rapid-fire delivery and sustained gusto by the excellent cast, who flood the stage with emotional ardor.
My take-away is that Yasmina Reza (who also wrote the award-winning “God of Carnage”) is not presenting Serge, Marc and Yvan so much as individuals as symbolic agents of a social order where each of us craves validation from others. It may be our status or taste or who we are as people that needs validation.
That’s why Serge paid a crazy price for a painting perhaps only he can appreciate. As Yvan says to Marc, dismissing the value of money in favor of the value of self-satisfaction, “If it makes him happy, he can afford it.”
For his part, Marc needs the validation of others idolizing him; in fact, he literally says so. Somewhat improbably, yet also predictably, Marc is jealous of Serge’s painting, which has replaced Marc as the object of Serge’s idolatry.
While Marc is full of swagger on the outside, and seems the most secure of the three, he may be the least secure on the inside.
Yvan—thin-skinned, self-deprecating Yvan – is the one who changes the most by the end of “Art.” He stiffens his back and discovers his own agency with his friends, and with the world that previously made him feel insignificant.
In the end, the friends learn something about each other, and about themselves, and have their sense of humor restored.
They may as well laugh. Ms. Reza reminds us that we need validation because, ultimately, we are insignificant, here one second, gone the next. The universe is laughing at us right now. Laughing back at it—and at ourselves—is the best revenge.
Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.