For Art's Sake

A well-acted, spirited, cerebral romp, Signature Theatre's production of Art offers an evening of provocative fun

Just as a piece of modern art can at first seem deceptively simple, so the premise of Yasmina Reza’s Art, at first blush, appears remarkably lean: Three longtime friends debate the purchase by one of a hugely expensive painting.

ART
ART
(Photo by Scott Suchman)

But just as the colors and juxtapositions of a Rothko may take on new and deeper meanings the longer we contemplate the canvas (and perhaps, more arguably, consider the work within its intellectual and chronological context), the more we also learn about Reza’s triangle as the veneers and fictions of the friendships begin to fall away. As the men look at themselves anew and the great big painting comes and goes before us, Reza seems to ask “Do you know what art is?” as well as ”Do you know who you are?”

Still, even as she raises her questions and ruthlessly works loose the facades of these three men, Reza never fails to see the humor in the human endeavor. As the friends become increasingly fractious and, eventually, unhinged, they still deliver their one-liners and rueful glances. For although there are a few piquant moments here, this is theater at a cooler temperature; the kind that lets you keep your emotional distance even as your intellect engages.

Director Matthew Gardiner gives Signature’s production, kept small and intimate, the kind of spirited pacing such a cerebral romp requires. Even so, there is a tendency at times to inflate the proceedings. Though such emphasis would be necessary in a larger venue, in the cozy space of Signature’s Ark it sometimes gilds the lily. This won’t dampen the guffaws of those used to everything writ large, as it is so often nowadays, but for those who prefer a little restraint, expect a few squirms.

Of course, with a cast of three confined to a set consisting of a modestly sized living room (which cleverly alternates between two of the men’s apartments via a change the wall art alone), the effectiveness of the players is paramount. Capturing his not-quite-as-confident-as-he-seems cynic with flair and flavor is a superb Mitchell Hebert as Marc.

Naturally understated, despite some of the “louder” moments, Marc, something like the sophisticated uncle we’d all like to have, is credible, richly colored and a pleasure to watch. In fact, Marc is so lifelike, so believable, he puts into question Reza’s need to steal his cool. With such a nicely drawn character, does Reza really need to reduce him the way she does all her characters? Indeed, it might have been more interesting, if less symmetrical, to leave Marc at peace with his failings and his insecurities. Many sophisticated uncles are.

ART
starstarstarstar
To May 22
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Va.
$61-$75
703-820-9771
signature-theatre.org

Coming a close second is John Lescault as Serge, the well-heeled doctor in the trio who buys the art that causes all the tumult. Serge is presented as possibly not knowing what he is doing when he spends a huge sum on a thoroughly modern concept piece, but Lescault keeps it interesting by giving his man a cool demeanor (at least most of the time) that suggests he may know more than he lets on. Lescault is also possessed of a very dry delivery that makes him perfect for Reza’s whipsaws. Still, watching Hebert and Lescault, you can’t help but imagine the fun to be had with these two going at each other like over-educated pile-drivers.

The only character truly allowed a rant is the odd man out — the bumbling, less-than-successful Yvan, who, it turns out, has viewed himself as the trio’s clown. Although Michael Russotto gives a fabulous energy to Yvan’s rant, when not called on for such extremes, he tends towards the self-conscious, never quite embodying his character as convincingly as the others. Even though Yvan is in ways the most challenging character to play — part buffoon, part canny go-between — you feel that less would have been more.

Still, as a trio, there is plenty of rapport, comic timing and a pleasurable sense that everyone is in on Reza’s joke and her more earnest wavelengths. For those who love and defend art as much as they enjoy a bit of irreverent ribbing, Art is an evening of provocative fun.

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