"Art" couldn't be more smart. The story of a friendship thrown into turmoil by a painting, Yasmina Reza's play translated from the French by Christopher Hampton begins as a comedy of colliding tastes and deepens into an extraordinarily moving study of the disintegration and eventual renewal of a three-way (and very male) rapport.

“Art” couldn’t be more smart. The story of a friendship thrown into turmoil by a painting, Yasmina Reza’s play translated from the French by Christopher Hampton begins as a comedy of colliding tastes and deepens into an extraordinarily moving study of the disintegration and eventual renewal of a three-way (and very male) rapport. That the men are played by Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott, all in peak form, will be the initial attraction of a production from Matthew Warchus as ingeniously directed as it is designed. But many a trio of actors are going to want to have a go at “Art,” since this is that rare play which is fully and often rendingly about life.

Reza’s cunning is revealed slowly, as the curtain rises on Mark Thompson’s high-walled, monochromatic set itself resembling a three-dimensional version of the white canvas under dispute (especially when lit at diagonals by Hugh Vanstone in accordance with the putative geometry of the picture).

Onstage are three chairs in different styles evocative of the men’s varying aesthetics. Divorced Serge (Courtenay), a doctor, has splashed out 200,000 francs on a new painting by an artist significant enough to have three works on view at the Pompidou Center. (If so, at $ 40,000 he presumably got a bargain.) To Serge, the work is full of both color and line; to chum Marc (Finney), an aeronautical engineer, it is every bit as drearily avant garde as the vogue for “deconstruction” that he dismisses as “a word from Builder’s Weekly.”

Mediating between the two is third pal Yvan (Stott), a sales agent for a wholesale stationery business. A so-called “great reconciler,” he is less interested in assessing an artwork that cost more than he makes in a year than in fending off the familial complications attendant upon his forthcoming marriage.

What difference, Yvan decides, does it really make what he thinks of the purchase? “A buffoon dying of loneliness,” he is not the sort to be made happy either by art or matrimony.

The craft of “Art” is astonishingly astute: Reza gives the audience what it expects while leading them to emotional territory that is utterly fresh. The play is full of the anticipated wisecracks of the aesthetic conservative, as Marc woos the house with the sort of broadsides that feature regularly in British art criticism. (It will be interesting to see how this character comes across in other countries, and cultures, where modern art is more valued both intellectually and financially than it is in England.)

But Marc’s stance, of course, is hardly the only one, and neither is it necessarily accurate. Serge loves the painting and regards Marc’s inability to see its resonances as typical of the smugness of the “nostalgia merchant” that his friend of 15 years has become. To Yvan, Marc’s curt dismissal epitomizes his gradual “atrophying,” even though Yvan himself is not above lacing into the painting when it suits him to do so. Indeed, one of the points crucial to “Art” is the way in which the painting unleashes betrayals and intimacies that have nothing to do with the canvas and everything to do with the complex palette of emotions shared among friends. (Those preferring a theatrical trawl through the contemporary gallery scene would be better off with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Three Birds Alighting on a Field.”)

Instead, the canvas in contention is a metaphor a catalyst, even just as John Guare’s two-sided Kandinsky in “Six Degrees of Separation” was before it. As there are few absolutes in art, the play suggests, there are equally few in friendship. It’s a fact the men discover as they rebuild a rapport as open to reinterpretation, and to blemish, as any piece of art.

Reza saves her real coup for the last stretch of the play, by which point one may wonder how she is going to break free of a round robin of acrimony and accusation that is often as funny as it is savage. But when Marc advances angrily upon the painting, aided we later find out why by Serge, “Art” takes off in a new direction, prompting an ending in which he discovers anew a painting that does indeed tell its own story if we can only learn how to “read” it.

Warchus, the director, gives a heightened spin to a text whose post-modernist feel (Gary Yershon’s jazzy music included), asides to the audience and 90-minute running time sometimes suggest a Gallic riff on “Six Degrees”; a moment involving olive pits shows he can do comic business, too. Still, it’s not just a reference to Paul Valery, and some distinctly Descartes-infused comedy, that lend “Art” an unmistakably European air. (Marc, a shade predictably, is labeled a misanthrope, lest Moliere get left out in the cold.)

Though the language is often blunt, its take on the essential intersection of art and life is not. These are people for whom taste is the final litmus test, who try as they might cannot leave art behind. A more crass dramatist would give Marc the final sneer so that the philistine comes out fighting. But the Marc who ends “Art” is a different person from the one who began it, and Finney’s strength is to suggest the imaginative rebirth of someone able to permit color into a black and white life that had been defined by bluster.

The play brings out the best in all three performers, and makes a virtue of that distinctive wide-eyed Courtenay feyness that can be so off-putting in parts like his recent Broadway Vanya. If anything, the actor could be even more piercing in Serge’s simple defense of the emotive power of art that has passed by the more economically minded Marc. Grabbing the play’s best part as its both funniest and saddest character, Stott holds his own and then some, letting rip with an extraordinary monologue on pre-nuptial family nerves that can be placed alongside Lucky’s “Waiting for Godot” outburst as a classic soliloquy of ordered chaos.

Is “Art” a classic? Surely it is too early to tell, and some may be put off by a verbal facility that sometimes sacrifices Reza’s darker truths to ready-made laughs. But when Vanstone’s lighting picks out the painting at last enjoying pride of place, the players seated in isolated pools of color, one gets that heady rush felt only in the theater when a play called “Art” comes close to being it.

Art

Wyndham's; 795 seats; 25 ($40) top

Production

A David Pugh and Sean Connery presentation of a play in one act by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Sets and costumes, Mark Thompson.

Creative

Lighting, Hugh Vanstone; music, Gary Yershon; sound, Mic Pool; associate producer, William Russo. Opened, reviewed Oct. 15, 1996. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Albert Finney (Marc), Tom Courtenay (Serge), Ken Stott (Yvan).
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