Some aspects of modern art beg to be satirized. When Kasimir Malevich painted his White on White, Ad Reinhardt perpetrated his “all black” paintings, and Yves Klein, le Monochrome, executed his all-blue panels, the results invited skeptical irony. One need not be a yahoo to view these products – and some of the minimalist art they spawned – as nonsense. There comes a point when the experts and collectors must be defied in a chorus of “That’s enough!” At such time, philistine becomes an honorific, and the cognoscenti deserve a taste of the jawbones of an ass.
So I sympathize with Yasmina Reza’s Art, which was the hit of Paris in 1995 and of London in 1996, and won awards in both cities. The plot is simple. Serge spends 200,000 francs on a five-by-four painting by the renowned Antrios that is all white except for some diagonal scratches. His friend Marc, who fancies Flemish painting, considers this Antrios shit, and Serge’s purchase of it an insult to their friendship. He tries to enlist the third of our musketeers, Yvan, to side with him. Yvan, an overemotional and insecure young man, seems to go along with Marc’s tirades. But confronted with Serge and the painting, he does what he does best: He wavers.
As the friends argue in circles and increasing vehemence, other problems surface: Yvan’s doubts about his impending wedding, which his friends urge him to call off. Even the wording of the wedding invitation has stirred up interfamilial virulence. Serge reveals his contempt for Paula, Marc’s wife, which gives rise to fury just short of fisticuffs. Everyone has frenzied outbursts. Again and again, the rage returns to the painting, which Serge now protectively removes, now provokingly re-displays. The scene shifts from one friend’s apartment to another’s, although the set – three white walls with slightly differing ornamentation – stays the same. But evenings to be spent in comradely outings are ruined: The painting threatens to turn good friends into bitter enemies.
Reza’s cunning dialogue has been fluently Englished by Christopher Hampton; even so, it requires high-powered actors to animate it, and happily, it gets them. As Marc, Alan Alda puts to insidious use his ability to pester with polish. His urbanely crinkly face oozes disapproval; his querulous voice is like a fingernail at a scab. Victor Garber’s dapper Serge harbors under the façade of a convivial man-about-town a defensive arrogance expressed with mounting bile. As Yvan, Alfred Molina is pure perfection. This Brit not only sounds as American as apple pie but also manages to look more French than a briard. He blows his top in a gorgeously Mount St. Helensian monologue, but he is equally splendid in his equivocations or as, with head swiveling like a tennis spectator’s, he dumbly follows the challenges buzzing past him. His incomprehension is epic: Other actors need something to be funny with; Molina can be a riot doing nothing.
The set by Mark Thompson is not so monochromatic as it appears at first, though it too is mostly white on white; his costumes are the last word in dark, contemporary chic. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting delights in these contrasting blacks and whites. Matthew Warchus has directed sparely but tellingly. Take the long silence as three frazzled men keep reaching, from nearer or farther positions, for a plate of olives on a coffee table. This nervous nibbling becomes a dazzling piece of choreography, yet no less natural and ludicrous than most of our quotidian rituals.
I am not sure the author’s ending, apt as it is, wholly persuades. But then, like the rest of the play – and like so much modern art – it is a Rorschach test, but one that is, unlike other tests, a joy to take. The 100 intermissionless minutes feel elegantly right: Anything more would be markedly less.