Fill in the blanks

Even the best of friends can feel their relationship strain when faced with the big, discomforting things in life: Deception. Betrayal. A blank white canvas.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, now being staged by North Carolina Stage Company, tells the story of three men whose friendship almost disintegrates after one of them splurges on a massive white painting without a speck of color.

Serge, the happy buyer, loves it; Marc hates it; and groom-to-be Yvan can’t seem to make up his mind. But they all have plenty to say about it: their conversation sorting out the meaning of the piece, and — by extension — collecting, art and human relationships, forms the core of this living-room drama.

“It’s a play that turns the relationship of friends inside out,” says N.C. Stage Producing Director Angie Flynn-McIver. Unlike the controversial canvas, the play — which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1998 — is as accessible and unpretentious as Monet’s Water Lilies. The script is relatively short, thoughtful without being ponderous, and very, very funny.

Humor, for better or worse, has been Art‘s defining trait: Its few poor reviews have come from critics who wondered whether jollity didn’t undermine the play’s effort to probe such important questions as: What is capital-A Art?

The nay-sayers found a sympathizer, though, in Reza herself, who has complained of audience laughter drowning out all-important lines. Upon accepting a London theater award naming Art as Best New Comedy, she said: “Thank you. But I thought I had written a tragedy.” Art has been a terrific success since its 1994 Paris debut (playwright Christopher Hampton provided the English translation). The appeal of the cast-driven show — other than the three leading men, the only character to appear onstage is a four-by-five-foot canvas — is apparently universal: Art has been produced profitably in dozens of countries.

Flynn-McIver and her husband Charlie Flynn-McIver, founders of N.C. Stage, waited three years and sold nearly 10,000 tickets before finally mounting this production, directed by Ron Bashford. (In fact, N.C. Stage is poised to sell its 10,000th ticket during Art‘s run. At the performance for which the golden ticket is sold, all paying customers will be entered into a raffle-style drawing for a weekend getaway including dinner, spa treatments and a night at the Albemarle Inn.)

The local play stars Charlie Flynn-McIver alongside Flat Rock Playhouse regular Bill Munoz and professional actor Matt Detmer. “The cast is very exciting,” says Angie. “Watching them work, there’s a crackle.”

Not surprisingly, in a play where the main character is a blank canvas, chemistry among the human actors is crucial. Producers of another, touring version of the work insisted on preserving the integrity of Art‘s ensemble by refusing to replace a single member of the trio. If one actor left, every role was recast. And each part in Art must be equally well-played to accentuate the script’s comic and combative elements.

Consider the actors’ motivation, after all: “Each of these characters feels very strongly about a piece of white canvas,” points out Flynn-McIver.

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]

North Carolina Stage Company (33 Haywood St.; enter across from Zambra’s on Walnut Street) continues its run of Art through Sunday, March 13, with performances Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15/Wednesdays, $18/Thursdays and Sundays, $20/Fridays and $22/Saturdays. 350-9090.


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