Almost every good play lends itself to being assayed effectively by different talented performers--but Yasmina Reza's "Art" may be unique in its ability to transform from one experience to another, even within the confines of the same production. Partly that's because the play itself is so stark: it's a serio-comic examination of a male friendship (three men actually) that is tested to its limit when one of the friends spends a fortune to acquire a painting whose canvas is all white. (For a more detailed analysis of the play, the opening week review is still online in these cyber-pages: link below.) The physical backdrop is no less "blank" than the canvas, so the actors are in a unique position to "fill" it. But just as important are the defining idiosyncrasies of friendship--as the minutiæ of companionship's intimacy is so exposed, the play cannot help but expose the idiosyncrasies of its players as well.
Thanks to a trade between British and American Actors' Equity, three Yanks are playing the roles in London (Stacy Keach, David Dukes and George Wendt), while three Brits have taken over on Broadway at the Royale. (The original Broadway company was Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina.) Along with the installation of the Brits comes the installation of the British script, which differs from the American version in colloquialism. (Even though the play is implicitly set in France, that is, due to its uniquely chameleonlike nature, a non-issue; what's important is that it seem in the native patois of its players.)
Before I make the comparison, let me hasten to add, the play is still quite exhilarating, and if you haven't seen it, you shouldn't deprive yourself. That said, the difference between "Art" as it was and "Art" now amounts to a fascinating trade-off.
With Alda, Garber and Molina, the play seemed to feature the quintessence of American light comedy. In short order, once it began, it seemed less like you were watching a play than that you were a camera eavesdropping on real people. (Well, the illusion of real people at least. The characters on "Frasier" are extreme, but similarly convincing.)
But with the Brits, you are much more conscious of the play; partly (if I may indulge the partlies again) this has to do with British technique, the clipped (to our ears) sound of the language, moments that were once verité humor now filtered through a sensibility more akin to British comedy of manners. (Think "Yes Minister"). But it owes just as much to the sense that the British trio have created three finely wrought character portraits--while the Americans seemed to be extrapolating characters from their own personæ. (I hasten to add: for all I know, the reverse may be the case in reality; what I'm describing here is the impression left upon the viewer.)
However, finely wrought is the watchword with "Art"'s new triumverate. As Marc--arguably the "main" character, who resists the painting most strongly--the formidable and powerful Brian Cox (of last season's "St. Nicholas"; best known as the original Hannibal Lecter in "Manhunter") is full of very entertaining bluster, and shows a surprising, even disarming facility for moments of antic hilarity. As Serge, Henry Goodman (recently Billy Flynn in the London company of "Chicago") plays the owner of the canvas as a regular white-collar Joe given to sudden, quick bursts of almost naughty glee at having done something insanely impulsive, all because he bonded with a work of art. As Yvan, the beleauguered and henpecked friend between them, David Haig (who has also assayed Serge in the London company), is terribly sweet and adorably vulnerable.
For me there is only one noteworthy thing missing in this new incarnation of "Art"--it's in the playing of a cathartic moment near the end. If you don't know the play, it's a moment that should not be spoiled. Skip the italicized paragraph below, which describes it. If you do know the play--or if you're involved with the production--read on; because the moment is, I think, easily reclaimed.
In an attempt to heal their shattered friendship, Serge makes a stunning gesture of sacrifice. He gives a felt-tip marker to Marc and invites him to deface the canvas. When the moment was played between Victor Garber and Alan Alda, the tension was very thick. And Alda took this amazing pause. You didn't know what the hell he was going to do. When he finally did turn toward the canvas, the audience was hushed...and when the felt-tip actually touched the canvas...they gasped. As if witnessing a desecration. Because by that time, of course, they too had bonded with the painting. It's the perfect response at the perfect moment. With the current company, though, that moment of challenge is not nearly so hot. Mr. Cox doesn't take the pause...and something in his body language seems to tip his next action; we're not surprised that he goes through with it. I think the play benefits from that moment of shock --and I wonder if the Mssrs. Goodman and Cox (in league with director Matthew Warchus) might not see their way clear to providing it.
I don't know that I can ever tire of seeing this play as each new cast takes over--it's that good, and the production that friendly to all able comers. If you haven't seen it yet, I envy you the discovery. And if you have seen it before...I envy you the re-discovery...
Everyone should go out and get their discount Broadway tickets to see this production.
Go to original opening week review of original cast
Go to David Spencer's Bio
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