The purchase of a piece of modern art escalates into a conflict among three friends, in the play “Art.” A production is now on stage on Corn Stock Theatre. Douglas Oakey has this review for Peoria Public Radio and the Live Theatre League. Opinions expressed are those of the reviewer, not those of Peoria Public Radio or the Live Theatre League.
“More matter, with less art,” Gertrude admonishes Polonius in “Hamlet.” The old counselor to the king has been blathering on, and the queen wishes he would get to the point of his story. The title of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s 1994 play “Art” portends much the same for its trio of characters. Charles Brown directs a riveting and very funny production of Christopher Hampton’s translation of Reza’s serious comedy at Corn Stock’s Winter Playhouse.
The premise of the play seems simple: Serge has laid out a hefty sum for a painting by a well-regarded artist, an abstract canvas mostly white with embellishments in various other shades of white. His friends Marc and Yvan react to his purchase. The end? Well, not by a considerable splash.
Taken too literally, the title misrepresents the story. Yes, the play provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of art and its elusive definition, but much more is displayed on stage than just Serge’s painting. The only characters are the three friends, so the play focuses intensely on the relationships between and among them. Within this tight frame we see the pressures of friendship build the tension to a breaking point.
Up front is Nate Downs as Marc, a serious antagonist to Mike Reams’ Serge. It is Marc’s response to Serge’s purchase that initially sets in motion a chain reaction that eventually enfolds the guileless Yvan, played by (the delightfully surnamed) Brian Artman. Part of the response for Marc (and, clearly, for some in the audience) is the nagging suspicion that all modern art is a vast joke, a hoax perpetrated by artists and art dealers upon a wealthy patron class and a pompous and deserving academic establishment. But Marc is fascinated by Serge’s acquisition of the white-on-white painting, trying indirectly to discover his friend’s “real” motive for buying it. Serge, meanwhile, is inscrutable on the subject, retreating behind hackneyed art-speak when describing his feelings about the work.
In one sense, Yvan becomes a pawn in the chess game between his supposed friends. Unlike them, Yvan clearly lacks many of the layers of “sophistication” they cultivate. In another sense, he finds his own ways to manipulate them.
The performances by the Corn Stock cast are highly compelling and skilled. Downs in particular does not allow you to look away. Make no mistake: Marc is a bully and a narcissist, and Downs captures all of his appalling charisma. It’s fun to watch him simmer on his way to a full boil as his frustration with Serge grows. He compares favorably to the actor Oliver Platt, with more than a little of that actor’s presence, as well as some vocal qualities and mannerisms. The only improvement for Downs would be a slightly more complete mastery of lines, especially at key moments. Overall, his late revelation of unexpected vulnerability completely convinces.
Reams as Serge is a worthy foil to Downs. He manages to play Serge’s pretensions to uncertain conclusion, which is what the story calls for. His own late character turn, while not exactly surprising, manages to impress with its elegant callousness.
And Artman as Yvan is sympathetic and frustrating at the same time. He brings to the proceedings ample pathos, at least until Serge manages to make it a dirty word. Artman’s Woody Allenesque neuroses play well for his character, a necessary contrast to the emotional warriors he gets caught between.
All three of the performers mine rich and sometimes disturbing veins of comedy in their portrayals. A spectator who doesn’t recognize in the story some of their own friendships is not paying attention, and there are more than a few wince-inducing moments. If you enjoyed Corn Stock’s excellent production of Reza’s “God of Carnage” a couple years ago, come back for “Art,” to see why it matters.