Reseeing Art with a new British cast was eye-opening. On first glance, Yasmina Reza’s neat play scored with its mocking of modern art. That element is still paramount, but even more absorbing is the dynamic of friendship mixed with the little hostilities and condescensions that binds together three Parisians: the aeronautical engineer Marc; the dermatologist Serge; and Yvan, formerly in textiles, now salesman for a wholesale stationery business in the family of Catherine, whom, with fast-dwindling enthusiasm, he is about to marry.
Aside from this inauspicious wedding, which both friends urge Yvan to call off, there is the expensive painting by a famous artist that Serge has bought for a mighty sum. It is all white, though some diagonal lines are discernible, and Serge claims to perceive all sorts of hidden colors. For Marc, outraged at his friend, the painting is a piece of white shit. Yvan, a waffler, can be swayed either way. Other issues get dragged in, e.g., Serge’s view of Marc’s companion Paula as a repellent phony, which leads the two men to fisticuffs, although only Yvan, who tries to separate them, gets hurt.
Finally, Art is about accommodation: the strained concessions that have to be made to enable friendship – and life – to go on. Reza’s writing is smart and witty, and allows the actors room for their fortes: There is no way for decent performers to look less than terrific. The American cast played more for the lines, the British more for the characters behind them; both ways are just fine. Brian Cox, Henry Goodman, and David Haig work wonders, as did their predecessors and other casts I have read about. Art is a very funny play, with that edge of wistfulness that makes the best comedies reach even further.