Art at Flat Rock Playhouse

At the heart of Art — Yasmina Reza’s 15-year-old international stage sensation, now at the Flat Rock Playhouse — lies a painting, “a canvas about five foot by four: white.” Taste in art is unaccountable. One might appreciate such a painting, remain neutral to it, or dismiss it as a joke, but few would view its purchase as this playwright does: an occasion for a comic romp about the near-dissolution of a long-standing friendship between three men.

The men in question are oddly assorted: the buyer, Serge (Scott Treadway), a dermatologist and divorcé; the critic, Marc (Bill Muñoz), an aeronautical engineer in a committed relationship; and the man in the middle, Yvan (Damian Duke Domingue), who has left textiles for stationery and is about to be married. Across an intermissionless eighty minutes, their debate about the painting leads them through personal attacks to self-revelation and eventual reconciliation, and even they are forced to wonder what they have ever seen in one another. The audience, though laughing, may also be puzzled.

Despite the title, Art isn’t about fine art but the art of friendship. One needn’t know or care much about aesthetic debate to enjoy this play. It’s written lightly and brightly as a middle class entertainment, in the manner of a boulevard comedy, about which the French author has a character in another play, The Unexpected Man, say, “in the theatre, the only thing I can stand is boulevard comedy… At a boulevard comedy, the audience laughs like normal people. They don’t laugh in that deathly way you hear these days in the palaces of culture.”

The script, like the apartment setting it calls for, is “as stripped-down and neutral as possible,” but its nicely varied monologues, dialogues, and trialogues offer opportunities for subtle characterization and over-the-top histrionics actors vie for. Each of Reza’s plays, including the current Broadway hit, God of Carnage, has attracted some of the biggest names on stage and screen — not at all surprising, since Reza began her career as an actress.

The performers in the Flat Rock production can’t match the star power of Art’s original Broadway cast, which included Alan Alda, but they are capable, experienced performers of enormous charm and likability, and they give the audience their all. This production, unfortunately, would benefit from greater restraint. Whether encouraged, indulged, or both by director Neela Muñoz, the actors start out at their highest pitch and maintain it until the last five minutes. Nothing develops. Relationships don’t evolve from irritation to anger to physical hostility; instead, war is waged from the outset, so that when an actual blows is struck—in one of the few awkward moments in the staging — it’s all of a piece with what preceded, instead of a peak.

This flatness prevents us from appreciating what drew these men together in the first place, or from caring about them much, if at all. That difficulty is heightened by the overly broad acting, much more appropriate to a sitcom than a boulevard comedy. Every line is illustrated and underlined by mugging, as if attendees couldn’t be trusted to understand anything for themselves. Without shading and a greater variety of emotional intensity, laughs are lost, as well as the human qualities the author clearly wants us to appreciate.

Oh, and about that white painting: it’s not white. As Yvan says, “There’s yellow, there’s grey, some slightly ochrish lines.” The Flat Rock Art entertains, but it, too, could have used a richer palette.

Art, by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. Produced by Flat Rock Playhouse. Through May 2. Directed by Neela Muñoz. Scenic Design: Dennis C. Maulden. Lighting Design: Michael Mauren. Sound Design: Joel Thompson. Costume Design: Ashli Arnold. With: Bill Muñoz (Marc), Scott Treadway (Serge), and Damian Duke Domingue (Yvan).

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4 thoughts on “Art at Flat Rock Playhouse

  1. AshevilleObserver

    Another thoughtful review by Steven Samuels, full of insight for both playgoers and the players themselves. Will director and actors take his suggestions to heart?
    And some suggestions for Mr. Samuels (and his editor): don’t spend so much time at the beginning of your reviews (as here and with “A Number”) telling the background of the play and playwright. It’s all very knowledgeable and shows you’ve done your homework and read the script. But what we really want to know is, what did you see on the stage and what do you think of it? Get down sooner to some specifics about the local production. If we’re going to spend maybe $20 or more for a ticket, we’ve got a decision to make. Keep all the thoughtful analysis, however, which could raise the quality of theatre production in Asheville if audiences and producers pay attention.

  2. tigerlily

    I like the background info; does AshevilleObserver not have time to read? I don’t think a review should just be about $$$$. That might be good for movies, when we have so many to choose from, but come on, you’re gonna go to the theatre ‘cuz you want to see the play, yes? I think it matters less how perfect the show is than the play itself–we only get to see a play when it’s performed. We can’t rent it, etc. I do think that the background stuff could be woven into the review, though, instead of all lumped at the beginning… pointing out more reasons why people should go (despite the reviewers criticisms) would be nice too.

    Maybe producers will pay attention to more reviewing, and maybe that will make a difference… but a bigger difference in quality would happen if theatres had more money to subsidize tickets, rehearse more, and to run workshops, etc. So, we really need more philanthropy… it would be great if reviewers would educate the public about this, too.

  3. AshevilleObserver

    Mr. Samuels’ background info is very well informed and should by all means be continued. Tigerlilly’s suggestion that it be “woven” throughout is a good one. And I agree with her that a review isn’t just about the cost of a ticket.

    But I think even the producers of local theatre will agree that their potential audience members have many choices for their art and entertainment. Economic considerations are a factor. Is a moderately well-performed production of a moderately interesting play worth my Saturday night and my $25 dollars, when I could see a sensational film at the Fine Arts for, say, $8.00? If I come to trust Mr. Samuels’ views, the way I trust Mr. Hanke’s, I might choose the play over the film.

    So the credibility, as well as the readability, of the reviewer is important. It’s important to the reader. It’s also important to the publisher of the Mountain Express.

    What’s going to be the Mountain Express policy about what theatre to cover? Will your coverage for theatre be as comprehensive as for movies?

  4. tigerlily

    Thanks for the nice reply AO! I do think that I would end up making some choices based on reviews, since I certainly don’t (and can’t) spend $25 per week on live theatre… I’m not sure I need reviewers to take an up or down stand on a production, though. The more info all around the better… including more preview/background articles, too. It might be fun for the MX to send more than one reviewer to some shows, too, for a variety of perspectives.

    I wish the city and the state helped subsidize more local performing arts. Or perhaps the bloated Chamber of Commerce could lend more of a hand. After all, a good reputation for lots to do brings visitors to Ashville!

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