‘Art’ Threatens A Friendship In Empire Stage’s Entertaining Production
Though it’s a question of aesthetics that sets off the action in the play Art by Yazmin Reza, Empire Stage’s current offering, the debate between friends that then ensues seems to have less to do with the meaning of art than with the absurdities of human ego. When dermatologist Serge buys what appears to be a completely white painting (though, as is repeatedly discussed to great comedic effect, it apparently also features some “fine white diagonal lines,”) his best friend Marc simply cannot make sense of how this action is in accord with the person he thought he knew.
So, the two begin to squabble, and things only get messier—and funnier—after their eccentric, neurotic friend Yvan is brought in to mediate. Like Reza’s later work God Of Carnage, which I had the privilege of seeing earlier this year, this award-winning play is incredibly well-written, featuring frequent witty zingers and well-designed arguments that believably allow a seemingly minor disagreement to escalate into no-holds barred character assassinations coming from all sides. Also as in Carnage, seemingly minor details like Marc’s wife’s interest in homeopathy and Yvan’s obsession with felt-tip pens are later called back at the perfect moments to complete a riotous joke.
A simple, elegant set by Ardean Landhuis well suits the play’s sleek, spare nature while realistically evoking a typical urban upper-class apartment. As the smug, confident Marc, David R. Gordon seemed perhaps the most natural onstage and at ease in his character’s skin, and Dean Nigro also delivered a hilarious take on Yvan, if maybe one that occasionally crossed the line from an energetic interpretation of a high-strung and over-the-top character into actual overacting.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ben Prayz seemed perhaps a little too inhibited as Serge, but was still effective enough in the part of the high-minded aesthete for the three characters to come together as a believable unit. As an ensemble, and as excellently directed by Amir Darvish, the three have a great grasp of comedic timing and keep the pace and energy high throughout. This ensures that the play’s 75ish minute run time flies by effortlessly, imparting plenty of laughs as it does.
However, though I’m not sure to what extent this is an effect of the production and to what an extent an effect of the script itself, what seemed to be missing from Art was any sense that these characters actually cared about each other rather than seeing each other only as means to the end of shoring up their own egos or combatants in a desperate battle of wits.
While this misanthropy felt refreshing in Carnage, and while Art does at least offer a hint of actual humanity in the tentative reconciliation at its conclusion, something about such a cold and calculated vision of human relationships gave this meditation on a blank canvas its own sense of emotional emptiness. The focus on petty banter rather than on the more philosophical questions that could be raised by the meaning of an all-white painting also meant that the play seemed to be somewhat lacking in intellectual depth as opposed to mere intellectual stimulation.
But the fact that Art stays so close to the surface, inviting us more to enjoy the characters floundering than to engage with them on any real level, also makes it an easy play to swallow, refreshingly undemanding yet consummately entertaining. Though you may not come away with any great insights from Art, if you can spare a little over an hour to catch one of the play’s last three performances before it closes up on this May 15th, you’ll probably be glad you did!