The value of “Art” will be the subject of appraisal for some time to come. Overhyped during its smash London run, Yasmina Reza’s one-act comedy-drama about three old friends torn apart over an expensive painting is indeed a pleasure to look at and savor, though one suspects some power has been lost as the play has taken on the weight of expectations. Even a terrific cast might not be able to keep audiences from silently asking, “This is ‘Art?’ “
That said, the play is indeed a smart portrait of friendship and its complexities, responsibilities and burdens. It’s difficult to imagine the celebrated London cast (Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott) being any better than the trio of actors in the Broadway production (Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina). Matthew Warchus reprises his elegant direction, and Mark Thompson’s beautiful set design is at once stately and spare.
Turning on a plot point so seemingly inconsequential it could be lifted from any “Seinfeld” episode (actually not a far-fetched comparison), “Art” spins on the purchase by Serge (Garber) of a 200,000-franc, all-white modernist painting of 1970s vintage. The purchase at first stuns, then infuriates Serge’s best friend of 15 years, the smug, anti-intellectual Marc (Alda), who interprets Serge’s growing pretension as both a threat and betrayal. “I’ve been replaced,” Marc will say later, “by this painting and everything it implies.”
Watching helplessly as his clique of friends self-destructs is Yvan (Molina), a conciliatory, easily swayed man of no strong opinion, his contribution to the group being an entertaining, self-deprecating humor. Yvan wants only to be liked and to have his two best friends present at his upcoming nuptials.
Though it’s rather like kicking a puppy, Marc and Serge do not spare Yvan either their wit or their anger, and the ongoing debate over the painting unravels the delicate balances that all three friends have relied upon. Marc, whose ego depends on his status as the group’s iconoclastic leader, simply can’t handle Serge’s newfound (or newly expressed) intellectual independence, deeming it affectation and posturing. Serge can’t tolerate Marc’s self-satisfaction, and Yvan wants only a fun evening with his friends in order to escape the panic of his ill-conceived engagement.
Reza’s play (effectively translated by Christopher Hampton) sharply captures the strategic allegiances of friendship as her three characters takes sides, pair off and gang up on one another. As brutal truths are revealed, the question of why the friendship exists at all comes to the fore, and it is to the play’s credit that despite all the intellectual debate, a rational answer is elusive. Friendship exists and persists for reasons that even these three self-examiners can’t fully grasp.
Profound? Not particularly. Revelatory? Hardly. The arguments over modernism seem so dated they’re quaint, but “Art” is a compact little snapshot of one friendship, and as such conveys truth. And it’s very funny in the bargain.
Warchus directs his impressive cast with a grace that well serves the angst and rage boiling beneath the friends’ chatty, comical banter. When tempers flare, as they surely do, the eruptions are all the more effective for the buildup. Only the climax seems mishandled, emphasizing laughs over horror.
Alda is wonderful as the nasty-spirited Marc, layering even the character’s laughter with cynicism and cruelty. Garber is flawless, his desperation for Marc’s approval matched only by his infuriation over the need. And Molina, handed the first scene-stealer in a lengthy, panicked and breathless monologue about the hurt feelings and flared tempers that accompany wedding plans, is a revelation. The regular-guy role of Yvan is a departure for the actor, and he nails it.
The performances alone would warrant the play’s Broadway unveiling. “Art,” too thin to rank even as a minor masterpiece, nonetheless takes a deserved place in the Broadway gallery.