Theater review: “Art” by Actor’s Center of Asheville

Photo from the Actor's Center of Asheville Facebook page

The Actor’s Center of Asheville make a stunning debut with the Tony-winning play, Art, by Yasmina Reza. It was a smash hit in the late 1990s, attracting major stars like Alfred Molina, Victor Garber, Alan Alda, Stacey Keach, Judd Hirsch, George Wendt and others to play the three male friends whose lives are changed when one of them buys an expensive work of modern art.

In full disclosure, Art is one of my favorite plays of the past 20 years, and I performed in a production of it in 2007. I’ve seen a few other productions of the show, all of which I disliked enormously. Luckily, the cast of The Actor’s Center nailed it, from every outlandish comic beat to every sincere examination of friendship.

Robert Dale Walker plays Serge, who buys a piece of art for $200,000. Dan Clancy is Marc, Serge’s pragmatic friend, who is driven to major distraction over the purchase of this large canvas with varying shades of white and three white diagonal lines. Marc can’t believe Serge is so taken with it, and Serge becomes offended when Marc criticizes him for it. Walker and Clancy play off of each other exceptionally well. They are two great actors given material they can sink their teeth into.

Enter The Actor’s Center founder Kevin Patrick Murphy, as Serge’s and Marc’s friend, Yvan. He’s a sad sack of a guy on the verge of getting married. The stress of it is causing weight loss, and Yvan is about to suffer a breakdown. This character is the perfect buffer for Marc and Serge, both of whom try to get Yvan to take their side in the debate over the painting. Yvan finds himself not understanding Serge’s love of the painting, but not being offended by it either, which keeps him locked in the middle of a fight that festers. Murphy is charming and touchingly funny as Yvan.

Lyn Nihart directs these three top-shelf actors in a tight and precise production, and deserves a lot of credit for getting it right. The conceit of the play is a hard sell to rational audiences. Could a white painting actually inspire such a heated debate that it jeopardizes deep friendships? It would be easy to play it up for laughs. After all, the premise is kind of silly. It would also be easy to play it too earnestly, which could make the audience disconnect quickly, finding the whole debate to be obnoxious and pretentious. Making a show like Art work is a delicate line to walk. I’m more than happy to report that not only does this production walk it without hesitation, but with perfect balance.

Art by continues its run at 35 Below through Sunday, Sept. 20, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $15.

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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