The theatrical franchise that is Yasmina Reza’s “Art” continues to expand and evolve, as the first U.S. production outside Gotham prepares to open in Chicago and an English trio takes over from the starry original cast at Broadway’s Royale Theater. Can an all-femme version be far behind? Brian Cox (technically Scottish), Henry Goodman and David Haig are the latest actors to put on designer Mark Thompson’s chic black Italian garb and take off the kid gloves in this bruising and ferociously comic examination of the thin ice upon which even the longest and deepest friendships may reside.
In fact the play is somewhat more bruising than it needs to be in the hands of these admittedly fine actors, who boast four Olivier awards among them. This incarnation of “Art” is like a lithograph in which the colors are a little too saturated, and delicate contrasts are lost. (It’s interesting — and not altogether surprising — to note that both Goodman and Haig, who play the refined Serge and the milquetoast Yvan here, respectively, are both West End veterans of the third role, the cynical, bullying Marc.)
Audiences new to the play probably won’t notice the coarsening of its gentler edges. The comedy here is whipped to a fine frenzy, led by Cox’s uproarious turn as Marc. He brings an infinite variety of nuances to the scorn Marc harbors for Serge’s purchase of an all-white painting, and all he thinks it implies. His explosive whinny of a laugh is an assault almost as shocking as the physical one that follows. And Haig delivers the play’s comic centerpiece, the hapless Yvan’s aria of premarital angst, with breakneck aplomb that wins a cheer from the audience.
But the play rises early to an angry pitch that threatens to grow monotonous well before the end of its brief running time. There’s a lot of bellowing going on here; Goodman’s Serge in particular is played without any of the touching sensitivity that Tom Courtenay, the part’s original, brought to it. Goodman wants to go toe to toe with Cox in the lung power department, and this delicate dance of egos is reduced too often to a shouting match.
Perhaps the actors are intent on making up in loud, hard-driving theatrics what they might be perceived to lack in name value. A program insertion gave bios of two “associate directors” in addition to helmer of record Matthew Warchus, so you’d think someone might have applied a restraining hand. That’s really all that’s needed. “Art’s” wit and humanity are indestructible, but the latter, in particular, needs careful nurturing that is currently in abeyance in the Broadway production.