by Yasmina Reza
directed by David Lee
@ Pasadena Playhouse
through February 19
As I watched Yasmina Reza's fine play Art for the fourth time, now in an excellent production at the Pasadena Playhouse directed by David Lee, I realized that seeds for her God of Carnage were firmly planted in Art. The male friends mention the term deconstruction several times, referring to the changes in modern art, but what we witness is a deconstruction of their friendship to the very core, as they leash out at each other in a primal beastly nature as do the two couples in the laterCarnage. Reza was definitely thinking with more civility when she wroteArt, nevertheless, as the trio of friends make a supreme effort to forgive and get back to the comaraderie they once experienced. Forgiveness/togetherness in Art; savage isolation in Carnage. At present, relationships, depending on their urgency, still very much count in our daily lives, so we strive to keep them alive; others we dismiss for lack of importance or maybe because we simply do not like to be in the company of these other people, but, in spite of polite gestures, it cannot be denied that society, sadly, is little by little most assuredly approaching the state of negativity/nihilism expressed inCarnage. Reza's brilliant observations keep coming full speed as the prolific playwright shows every sign of accumulating a body of work that delves right into the depths of the human condition.
Director Lee and a terrific cast bring out the human and inhuman touches to perfection in this newest rendition of Art. And Tom Buderwitz's tremendous museum-like set design of a multitude of modernistic empty canvases does much to emphasize Reza's themes. The overpowering set with the three actors in the center foreground shows how this is but one example of the effects of dehumanization within the giant macrocosm. In Carnage the vast set was red, like blood, for carnage; here it is a shade of grey, more neutral, less severe, more pacifistic but just as powerful. Streaks of grey are also sprinkled on the white canvas purchased by Serge, lending it, at least through his eyes, a sense of color. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and dermatologist Serge (Michael O'Keefe) has the right to his opinion, to respect the art for what it means to him. Engineer Mark (Bradley Whitford) is his arrogant friend who hates what he sees, insists on imposing his pessimism on Serge and thus begins the debate about what constitutes good art. Serge has paid a whopping $200,000 for a practically blank canvas, and Mark is quick to point out what he calls Serge's lack of taste. Ivan (Roger Bart), who works in a more menial capacity in stationery, likes the art piece, but according to Mark, Ivan is a spineless, neurotic suck-up with no sense of intelligence. This is the crux of the argument between the three friends that ends up almost destroying their bonds.
All three actors play their divergent sides to the letter. Whitford's Mark is obnoxious and unbearable at every turn as Bart portrays Ivan as a sensitive, whimpering mess who cannot take criticism very well, but neither can Mark for that matter. Referee O'Keefe brings out the intelligence in Serge, who believes in weighing things honestly and accepting every human being for who he truly is. But he is not without his faults either, and is not afraid to criticize Ivan's tardiness and Mark's wife Paula's incessantly bad habits, to make his points. Bart is, as ever, very, very funny, and only he could get away with trying to unravel a scarf which has gotten caught in the crevices of his jacket, practically upstaging the other two as they passionately argue a point. Whether it's director Lee's or actor Bart's idea, it's a screamingly funny moment and works to show in part just how insignificant and silly all this useless fighting actually is.
This is a wonderfully intelligent and charming evening of theatre that one can see again and again, mainly due to Reza's ingenious playfulness with words. But each time the different actors bring new meaning, new nuances to the work, and this cast could not be finer, as they work their art on Art.