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Theater review: 'Art' at East West Players

September 18, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Art

The phenomenal success of "Art" seems due to its literary flair. Yasmina Reza's existential comedy about a meltdown between three longtime friends after one buys an expensive painting blends behavioral farce with sociological essay. That dichotomy lends "Art" an accessible veneer that has dazzled audiences since its 1994 premiere at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Not long thereafter, "Art" hit the English-speaking world in Christopher Hampton's idiomatic translation, winning an Olivier award and a Tony for best play in 1998.

Certainly, the light-fingered East West Players production has no trouble locating the humor in Reza's witty minimalism, thanks to the capable work of director Alberto Isaac and a laudable trio of actors. Whether this counters a nagging sense of the nebulous that lurks beneath "Art's" study of friendship gone sour is open to debate.

Transpiring without an intermission, the narrative, punctuated by direct-address interjections, is simple. Serge (François Chau), a successful dermatologist, purchases a painting by a "well-known" artist for 200,000 francs. The white-on-white canvas, mirrored by designer Alan F. Muraoka's deliberately artificial set, ignites an discursive firestorm.

Serge shows the painting to aeronautical engineer Marc (Bernard White),  his intellectual "mentor" and a snob beneath his classicist posturing. Appalled by Serge's independence, Marc bluntly says, "It's a piece of white.…" Serge barely masks his dismay, which doesn't escape Marc's notice, and soon stationery salesman Yvan (Ryun Yu) finds himself dragged into the argument.

It's the last thing that Yvan, who isn't in the same economic league as his compatriots, needs. Not when he's up to his raised eyebrows in wedding plans to a woman he may not love, to say nothing of being a conciliatory flip-flopper.

After Marc, then Serge, buttonholes Yvan about the painting, "Art" gradually develops into a tripartite picture of men behaving badly while pretending to civility. The escalating personal digs climax with an act of slapstick violence, followed by a calculated bit of artistic desecration that leaves all three reevaluating their relationship, probably forever.

What sustains the East West staging is its precision, director Isaac leaving no beat unstruck and keeping the tone edgy. His designers occupy the same blank page, with Jeremy Pivnick's lighting and John Zalewski's sound adding subtle niceties without showing off.

All three actors are estimable, batting lines and reactions between each other like Wimbledon champs in costumer Ivy Y. Chou's chic wardrobe. White, always a master of economical presence, slyly negotiates the mercurial Chau's honey-toned zingers, and Yu's emotionally nuanced deadpan almost steals the show.

However, their entertaining expertise, while holding our attention and going as far as possible to turn these archetypes into people, cannot give "Art" the meaning that critics and crowds have assigned it. Reza is undeniably an adept stylist, but she fails to make her conveniently proportioned characters, their heady talk or what they inflict on each other add up to true dramatic action, let alone substance.

"Art" will likely be a hit yet again. At base, however, it remains an ornate sketch masquerading as a masterpiece.

--David C. Nichols

"Art," East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $25-$35. (213) 625-7000. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Photo: From left: Yvan (Ryun Yu), Serge (Francois Chau), Marc (Bernard White) in "Art" at East West Players. Credit: Michael Lamont

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