Arts & Culture

No accounting for taste in 'Art' at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre

‘Art’ deals with the disintegration of a friendship.
‘Art’ deals with the disintegration of a friendship. COURTESY OF SLO LITTLE THEATRE

'Art' is a play that distills good theater into a precise package.

A tight, fast-moving story with witty dialogue, it has elements of both comedy and tragedy and asks questions that may make you think about your own relationships. It’s not really about art, but about the art of friendship.

Written in French by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, “Art” won the Tony award for Best Play in 1998, as well as several European awards. The playwright has expressed surprise that it is often billed as a comedy, but she has conceded that maybe it’s a “funny tragedy.”

I have seen “Art” three times, and although the dialogue remains the same, the tone can be tuned toward comedy or drama.

With three actors and a minimalist set, the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre production, directed by Michael Siebrass, has a sharp, comic edge that makes the most of the clever repartee. But in the end, it’s all about the deconstruction of a friendship.

Serge, a divorced dermatologist, pays 200,000 francs for a painting by a fashionable modern painter. It’s large, 4 by 3 feet, and has a white background with very, very subtle diagonal lines in a different hue of white. His best friend, Marc, an aeronautical engineer who likes classical art, reacts not just with distaste, but with disbelief and, surprisingly, anger. The third friend, Yvan, stressed out on the brink of his wedding, tries to be the peacemaker, but he ends up being hurt, both physically and psychologically.

Each actor defines his character well, and their roles in the friendship become obvious as they bicker and reveal attitudes that they had kept hidden from each other to preserve their male-bonding relationship. The dialogue is often funny in a caustic way, and the comedy is the tip of an iceberg of psychological jousting.

Steve Kipp plays Serge as self-assured (in the beginning), proud of his own modernity in acquiring the painting, but increasingly frustrated and puzzled by Marc’s harsh attitude. In the end, he makes what appears to be a sacrifice in the hope of reviving the friendship, although they all know it will never be the same.

Stuart Wenger is Marc, who ridicules the painting — and derides Serge in the process. As their relationship erodes, Marc begins to have regrets about his actions, and reveals that he considered himself Serge’s mentor and the painting represents a failure of that role. He is not just angry, but jealous.

Joe Eister is terrific as Yvan, the most sympathetic of the friends, and also the funniest as he wails and whines about his job in his bride’s uncle’s stationery store and his upcoming wedding.

Eister is both hilarious and touching in a long, show-stopping monologue describing his hysterical mother and bride as he copes with the decision to put the stepmothers on the wedding invitation. And he’s funny as he describes his meetings with his therapist. Yvan has always been the court jester in the group, and now he tries to be the mediator between Serge and Marc, but they don’t appreciate his efforts and ridicule him to the point of tears.

As the wordplay between the three men escalates, they reveal long-hidden feelings about each other. Marc’s significant other, Paula, can almost be pictured as they diss and discuss her, and the high-strung personalities of Yvan’s mother and fiancée indicate that in the future, Yvan may need the sanctuary of the mens’ friendship more than ever.

This is a strong play as it chronicles the disintegration of a long-term friendship. While it’s entertaining, it poses questions for all of us. How often do we say things that hurt friends or relatives, and how deep is that hurt? Should we hide certain feelings and attitudes to save relationships? After an emotional meltdown, can we ever go back to a more comfortable time? These are serious thoughts, but the witty play also reminds us of the importance of maintaining a sense of humor.