What would you say to a friend who just paid $28,000 for an all-white painting?
•“What an astute eye you have for meta-irony.”
•“I’ve always admired the deconstructionists.”
•“Are you kidding me? Have you totally lost your mind?”
This is more or less the setup for Yasmina Reza’s 1994 comedy of manners, “Art,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The story is simple enough: A man with artistic pretensions brings home a virtually blank canvas and unveils it for his two friends. One thinks the painting is a ridiculous joke, the other tries to straddle the fence.
Before long, the friendships themselves are in jeopardy.
While the play makes gleeful fun of the pretensions of the art world, it is actually more about the fragile nature of men’s friendships. That’s why Reza considers it as much a tragedy as a comedy – although if it’s a tragedy, it’s a particularly laugh-filled one.
Reza originally wrote the play in French and it had its initial success in Paris in 1994. It moved to London in 1996 (translated by Christopher Hampton), where it was a smash in 1996 with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.
Then it moved to Broadway in 1998 with Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina. It was an immediate critical smash.
“ ‘Art’ belongs to a tradition that once flourished on Broadway but is seldom represented there these days: the sleek, pleasant comedy of manners with an intellectual veneer that allows audiences to relax at the theater without feeling they’re wasting time,” wrote New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley. “It’s an impeccably tailored piece of work.”
Interplayers mounted its first production of “Art” in 2001. It was among the finest shows in the theater’s history; it is also one of the most frequently requested, which is one reason Interplayers is reviving it under the direction of artistic director Reed McColm.
This time, the cast features three well-known local actors: Jack Bannon, a Hollywood veteran (“Lou Grant”) and winner of a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award; Patrick Treadway, the versatile Spokane actor, director and artist; and Roger Welch, the artistic director of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre and an accomplished actor and director.
“It’s an actor’s dream, a nonstop cross-fire of crackling language, serious issues of life and art, expressed as outbursts that sound like Don Rickles with a degree from the Sorbonne,” wrote Jack Kroll of Newsweek about the Broadway production.
In addition to asking the question, “What is art?” it also asks, “Can we differ about it and still be friends?”
Make sure to schedule some time after the play to debate this point with your friends.