How do you put a value on art, or on friendship? French playwright Yasmina Reza delves deeply into these questions in Art, her Tony-winning play, cleverly reimagined in a limited-run virtual production from International City Theatre in Long Beach.
The concept is immediately engaging, and deceptively simple: Serge (Brent Schindele) has paid €200,000 for a painting that looks like a large, white square. He proudly shows it off to his friend Marc (Michael Uribes), who reacts negatively, both to its description as “art” and to its “ridiculous” price point.
The very idea that his friend could spend such a sum, especially on art that (to him) isn’t art, disturbs Marc and shifts the friendship between the two men. The insults fly quickly and freely as they adjust their perceptions about each other and themselves, in the context of art and, by extension, taste, class, money, intelligence and empathy. Each pleads his case to a third friend, Yvan (Brian Stanton). Reza breaks the fourth wall, as the friends gripe to an unseen audience.
When the friends share their true thoughts and emotions, they generally offend. When they lie, they smooth the waters, even though they’re putting continued access above a deeper connection, choosing one form of friendship over another. It’s an uncomfortable dance that reveals the pretensions and insecurities of the upper middle class, as did the playwright’s God of Carnage.
The characters appear in semi-transparent boxes that move around the screen. The wall of each home, white, brick or gray, can be seen through each box. an effective way to simulate being in the same environment. As a perhaps unintended fillip, the characters, in their boxes, become art themselves, hanging on the wall and sometimes positioned above a fireplace.
The boxes are well-employed. Actors pass items from one box to another and, in an argument, the boxes shift rapidly, with characters going in and out of frame. When breaking the fourth wall, the box holding the character speaking directly to the audience enlarges and other characters freeze in their smaller boxes.
The actors all look forward, toward the camera, except when doing something else, such as viewing the painting. It takes a few minutes to grasp that they are in fact looking at each other, and then that creative choice becomes the audience’s reality. The approach is not ideal but it’s a valiant experiment and a new way to take in a play that, familiar or not, offers meaningful truths about human frailties and the compromises necessary to live in a civilized society.
The play won awards as a comedy, surprising Reza who felt it was a tragedy. It’s satisfying on both levels, especially with this talented cast and unique approach. It was translated from the French by Christopher Hampton. Kudos to this production’s creative team, especially projections and sound designer Dave Mickey.
Art is available on demand every Thursday through Sunday, March 4-7. Tickets are $30 per household and can be purchased here.