City Theatre's Art

Macho arguments about taste abound in Yasmina Reza's dramatic comedy


(l-r) Scott Poppaw, J. Kevin Smith, and Marc Balester in City Theatre's Art (Photo by Aleks Ortynski)

The entire plot of Art revolves around a white painting. As we are told (repeatedly), the piece is 3 feet by 4 feet, white, with the hint of diagonal lines. Throughout the course of the play, the owner of said painting brings out his prize to display it, to stroke the canvas edges lovingly, to boast and brag and gauge reaction, before inevitably whisking it away out of outrage or jealous guarding. And there I sat, wondering just how that canvas kept from getting dirty, smudged with finger oils and dust as it's moved and shifted and evaluated.

I think the dirt is the point. How much can something pure – our intellect, our friendships, our own fragile sense of self – stay unsullied when examined and picked apart by the world?

Art, by French playwright Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, is a tight single-act play about three friends and a painting. Serge (Marc Balester) has purchased the aforementioned white painting at an exorbitant price. This outlandish action offends his friend Marc (Scott Poppaw). They soon devolve from snide remarks about taste into a battle for their very friendship. Yvan (J. Kevin Smith) enters the fray at first as a go-between for the two warring parties but quickly becomes sucked into the malaise of wounded ego and wry needling.

If you like watching stories of fracturing relationships and self-examination, if you like stories that confront the absurdity of art criticism (should I take offense?), or if you are simply a great fan of the television show Frasier, which this channels with proper pomposity, City Theatre's production of Art is a treat.

How can men communicate honestly? They cannot confront each other about their concerns directly. No, it must be couched in art and class and machismo. In Reza/Hampton's script, the truth about these men comes out inch by tortuous inch, all carefully guarded until the need for a cutting blow. Under the direction of Andy Berkovsky, the actors perform that hooded, sarcastic protection marvelously, all furrowed brows and rolled eyes. At the beginning, they start stiff, subtly checking for loyalties. It gets rolling as the action calls for the three men to circle one another, which is performed with the aplomb of caged lions. They irritate one another's soft spots, waiting to go in for the kill. No longer is this fight about a painting. It's about their own sense of self. It's about their relationship with each other. It devolves into a fight for their very souls.

City Theatre's latest slate of plays will be presented at Picturebox Studios, and they've created an excellent space. For Art, there's an intimate living room set, an area that can feel warm and spartan, becoming delightfully claustrophobic as tensions rise. I particularly admire the volume control in Picturebox. The actors don't need mics. Instead, the cadence naturally rises from conversational to hysterical, taking the audience along for the emotional ride.

So buckle up for an entertaining story of three men dragging each other down. In the end, Serge, Marc, and Yvan are looking for meaning not only in the painting, but in their own lives – a good reminder of confronting male fragility and ego.


Art

Picturebox Studios, 701 Tillery,
www.citytheatreaustin.org
Through Feb. 2
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Theatre, Picturebox Studios, Andy Berkovsky, Marc Balester, Scott Poppaw, J. Kevin Smith

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