Art: But I Know What I Like
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Jan. 26, 2001
Art: But I Know What I Like
Zachary Scott Theatre Center,
Whisenhunt Arena Stage
through February 18
Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min
Yasmina Reza's Art has come to Austin. It's a pearl, and it's the inside-out of a pearl. It's a pearl because it's a thing of beauty and it's concerned with whiteness and what whiteness comprises and implies. It's the inside-out of a pearl because a reaction to humanity is the cause of this play, the way a bit of sand might be the irritant -- although one could say the inspiration -- that causes an oyster's pearl; and now here's the finished beauty, on the Whisenhunt Arena stage, surrounded by those irritants, those inspirations: the audience: humanity.
But let's move to the practicalities. The pearl of a script needs a worthy setting to fully realize its beauty: the actors who embody the words, the director who shapes the action and tone, the props and more that lend concrete source to the story's glow. Art debuted on Broadway, where it won a Tony for Best Play and where money and connections can provide whatever setting is required for any script. Luckily for Austinites, the Zachary Scott Theatre Center production of this play is equal to the playwright's work.
Three men are considered here, three young but longtime and philosophically diverse friends. Jon Watson, David Stahl, and Chris Doubek know just what they're doing as these characters, and director Sarah Richardson puts a fine polish on the proceedings. Stahl is especially adept in his portrayal of wishy-washy Yvan, pushing the man's constant pandering to a point just short of cartoonish and eliciting a spontaneous barrage of applause with an extended, multivoiced rant about his mother, his fiancée, his stepmother, and various in-laws. Richardson, whose choices of blocking and timing are already admirable, conjures a small miracle in translating this 90-minute exploration of relationships onto an arena stage, making all the required compensations seem fully natural, making some of the Whisenhunt-specific movements work even better than the original action might have: When the focal painting's moved around to give the characters a different angle of view -- and to reveal its blank front to the other part of the 360-degree audience -- we get to observe that second reaction, and this sets up a sweet little feedback-effect that hints at the deeper, more polarized reactions soon to follow from the characters.
And yes, although this play's called Art and its white painting is a kind of ultimate, invisible MacGuffin around which all the action and even all the personal revelations revolve, this play is about relationships. But it's not about sexual relationships, whether man/woman or homosexual or whatever; it's about the platonic friendships of three men ... and what emotional havoc time and honesty can wreak therein.
This is a guy play, basically; is it surprising that, even though it's written by a woman, it's so dead-on? But, okay, it's not the sort of guy play that one would use to sell Miller Lite. There's brandy instead of brewskis in this story, there's concern about the intellect and the more delicate emotions rather than the gridiron and the engine block, there is much posturing and subterfuge and both active and passive aggression, and there's one hell of a lot of laughs. That's an important question: Is it funny? Holy Mark Rothko, this play is hilarious!
Do you need a flaw in this pearl, to better accept the scope of its beauty? Here are two -- one major, one minor. Jon Watson, who does an otherwise excellent job as Serge, needs to lose the Ac-tors' Over-E-Nun-Ci-Ation; even if it's not the man's usual onstage voice, and director Richardson insists upon it as a sign of the character's pretensions to highbrow speechifying, those constantly emphasized terminal "t"'s are so annoying that they detract from the show. And, finally, the material of the ever-so-important painting is stretched upon its frame in such a way that there's a distinctly shadowed convexity near one corner. Now, in any other instance this would be silly to mention, but I think that anyone with a little sense will agree that it's something that needs to be addressed vis-à-vis the aesthetic parameters under consideration here. Of course, you may think that's an overreaction, perhaps even a bit of critical snobbishness; and maybe you think the painting's fine the way it is, and even that Watson's diction is just right. And if you do, well, that disagreement may change the way we think about each other. You may wonder why you read these reviews in the first place, why you ever listen to anything I have to say, when obviously I have no goddamn idea what the hell I'm ...
Ah. And that's why you need to see this play.