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October 31, 2000

ART and MTG’s ARTful Performance

A Review by Pat Pinson

ART, Yasmina Reza’s play that poses the question "If you don’t like my art, can you still be my friend" is, at best, a play about human relationships.

The Mobile Theater Guild’s production runs through October 28. And they do it up right. Written in France, this play premiered in Paris in 1994, and on Broadway in 1998, and it has enjoyed wide success being translated into 20 languages. It is about a white painting -- no objects and no color-- it is white on white. One New York critic quipped that "the all white painting shows how backward the French are. To be up to date, the work should have been conceptual." Well, perhaps. Maybe the painting itself is not the issue.

Ninety unbroken minutes of discussion about an art work reveals more about the three friends than it does about art. Philip Tapia has made the stage into a white on white setting like the painting. In fact, the whole theater is turned into an art gallery with a show of abstract works by Wanda Sullivan. This enhances the setting of the play and brings the audience directly into it. The artist’s statement even says that her paintings capture the essence of the landscape rather than the visual reality of it -- which is at the core of the whole evening’s exchange on stage.

The white on white painting that Serge has bought at a high price is the catalyst for this play, and the script reworks all the old biases about modern art. Some call it a "play of ideas," but it seems to be more of a character exploration than art enlightenment. The ideas are perennial -- the snob appeal of the unusual, the boorish character of the uninitiated, the pretense of liking what you don’t like, the difficulty of art to convey clear ideas, the dislike of the new, the price evidently determines the value -- these "ideas" have been around for a long, long time. But to the characters, these ideas create the tension that threatens a 15-year friendship.

A stroke of genius is the unity between the play, the set, and the painting itself. The play is as economic as the white on white painting -- it has only three actors, the set is just as sparse -- two white chairs and a white table in a white room -- and the economy of the scene changes involves replacing only one painting.

William Watts plays Serge with unrelenting commitment to his purchase. He strides about the stage bringing the painting in and out, and never hangs it up until the end. Watts gives the part intensity and grows increasingly angry because nobody understands the work.

Marc, his mentor, is puzzled about this purchase -- Louis Courie plays his confident old friend who speaks his mind pretty openly. He is relaxed and not in the least threatened by the work, rather deliciously smug. He strikes poses right out of Norman Rockwell as he muses and pauses, studying the art. As the traditionalist in the group whose own painting is a landscape, his appraisal is -- that it stinks!

Yvan is the youngest member of this trio and tries to keep peace between the other two. They refer to his taste in art as liking "motel painting." Chris Maynard makes Yvan a likable, sort of willy-nilly fellow who usually says what the others expect him to say, but when up against the wall, speaks his mind vibrantly. His colorful monologue about his wedding invitations where he takes on the voices of his fiancée and his stepmother brought spontaneous applause and laughter from the house.

The play has moments of quick repartee ranging from Seneca to Deconstruction, but they are always light, and at the beginning the actors often turn and address the audience. Director Michael McKee escalates the pace into a crescendo of hurt feelings as the barbs become more pointed, but he sometimes breaks it into silence with scenes of -- chewing! Friendships cannot survive the art strain and ultimately break down.

The ending comes with an unexpected twist as the white on white painting becomes background for other interpretations, the friendships are salvaged and all ends well. The cast carried the play on with unbelievable focus in spite of constant intrusive noise from outside, and never missed a beat. Lighting, set, and costume were very effective, making the form of the play every bit as interesting as its fiction.


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