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Theater review: 'Art' at Pasadena Playhouse

January 30, 2012 |  5:18 pm

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“Art,” Yasmina Reza’s commercial hit that won the 1998 Tony Award, is a canapé for theatergoers who haven’t the appetite for a whole meal. Less than 90 minutes in length, this urbane French comedy is elegantly drawn yet utterly evanescent — as superficially tantalizing as the soft bristles of a makeup brush.

The cast bears the responsibility of keeping this lightweight play, which is as seductively slight as Reza’s more recent “God of Carnage,” from floating off into the ether. The Pasadena Playhouse’s revival, which opened Sunday under the guidance of veteran stage and TV director David Lee, has assembled a fairly solid one. The production won’t have you reassessing the work’s depth, but it will do its lively best to keep your spirits raised.

Three accomplished performers — Bradley Whitford, an Emmy winner for his work on the NBC series “The West Wing,” Michael O’Keefe, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “The Great Santini,” and Roger Bart, a scene-stealer in two Mel Brooks musicals, “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein” — portray the play’s middle-aged buddies thrown into crisis after one has bought a stark modernist painting for an exorbitant sum that challenges not just their value systems but the viability of their friendship.

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The actors still appear to be settling into their roles, but they make a distinctive trio in a production that draws out their playful sides. The punch lines of Christopher Hampton’s translation are loudly detonated and the comic bits are deployed with antic panache. If the emotional bonds between the characters are as difficult to discern as the lines on the white-on-white canvas that Serge (O’Keefe) has proudly bought for the staggering sum of 200,000 euros, there’s little doubt that the love-hate relationship they share is too meaningful to them to discard without a fight.

Marc (Whitford), an aeronautical engineer with a wisecrack at the ready, is aghast at the pretension behind Serge’s art purchase. Serge, a chilly dermatologist who prides himself on his cultivated taste, can’t abide Marc’s close-minded superiority. Yvan (Bart), less assured professionally or personally than either friend and in a tizzy over his upcoming nuptials, gets swatted around like a birdie in an increasingly belligerent badminton match.

Much of the fun comes from watching Marc’s disgust at Serge’s use of the word “deconstruction” (Whitford’s whole pallor changes like a sky before a fierce storm) or Yvan’s breathless explanation for his lateness (Bart runs through this monologue with the lung power of an Olympian track star). It’s these kinds of supercharged theatrical moments, set against the haughty reserve of O’Keefe’s Serge, that lend color to Reza’s play, which is every bit as monochromatic as the painting in question.

Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s simple yet suggestive variations on an austere modern apartment have just the right chic gloss. Kate Bergh’s costumes are less successful at defining this milieu, which doesn’t seem as rumpled and unprepossessing as the gentlemen’s clothing.

A more probing interpretation of “Art” would emphasize the darkness over the light, exposing the haunting sense of emptiness that’s steadily overtaking the characters. These bickering companions, after all, are coping as much with disillusionment and the depredations of time as they are with matters of aesthetics and taste. But such a production would constitute an act of — sorry, Marc — deconstruction, which might spoil the brisk enjoyment of those who want only to be diverted.

The odd thing about this revival is that, though the play had a triumphant run on Broadway in 1998 (after enjoying similar success in Paris and London), it seems to belong to a much distant era. The economy has changed drastically in the last decade and a half, and so too have our priorities. “Art” might as well have been written in the 1920s as the 1990s, so remote now are the terms with which it chooses to investigate the old subject of comrades at a crossroads.

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-- Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com 

"Art," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb 19. $29-$59 (premium seating available). (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Photos: Upper: Bradley Whitford, Roger Bart and Michael O'Keefe. Lower: Bart and Whitford. Credit: Jim Cox

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