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).