Review: Penfold Theatre’s ‘Art’

New version of Yasmina Reza’s satire remains hysterically timely

Kareem Badr, Nathan Jerkins, and Ryan Crowder in Penfold Theatre’s new production of Yasmina Reza's ‘Art’ (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

One of the loveliest gifts a theatregoer can receive is to see a production fully realize the potential of its source material. Penfold Theatre’s latest iteration of ‘Art,’ a satirical look at how we value art and friendship by French playwright Yasmina Reza, is one such gift.

The play’s extremely simple conceit centers around three friends and the expensive piece of modern art one of them, Serge (Ryan Crowder), has just purchased: a white canvas striated with fine white diagonal lines. He invites traditionalist Marc (Kareem Badr) to view and appreciate the painting … and their years-long friendship immediately begins to unravel. Marc is incapable of understanding what his friend could possibly see in the piece and seems to take personal offense to the idea that Serge paid good money for it, while Serge insists that Marc doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s never taken modern art seriously. With both men feeling as if their intelligence is under attack, they attempt to drag their fence-sitting friend Yvan (Nathan Jerkins) to their respective sides, and what began as a simple difference of aesthetic opinion spirals into personal attacks, intellectual elitism, and stubborn refusal to compromise – no matter the cost.

As with all good art, there are many ways to read ‘Art,’ and director Steven Pounders (who also directed Penfold’s inaugural 2008 production) brings each one to vivid life, coaching the cast through a pitch-perfect series of comedic pauses, passionate diatribes, and shifting allegiances as the trio interrogates one another over opinions of both the painting and each other.

In Reza’s world, all conflict is borne of a refusal to understand opposing points of view. Whether read as a metaphor for political lines (Marc as the conservative; Serge the liberal; and Yvan the gooey emotional center), familial dissolution (with Yvan, already juggling complicated emotional standoffs between family members as he plans his wedding, navigating the feud between Serge and Marc like a child navigating his parents’ divorce), or simply a straightforward analysis of how we assess artistic merit based on personal biases and preferences, the action onstage cleverly renders the script’s multiplicity by recognizing that unifying thematic core: that there is no surer way to fail each other than by selfishly asserting our point of view at the expense of all others.

Each actor brings the kind of all-in sincerity necessary to make this work, delivering every moment of soul-bearing hypocrisy with equally revealing honesty. Working from Christopher Hampton’s 1996 translation, character and dialogue take center stage here, and the technical work backs them up beautifully. A simple set by Desi Roybal is segmented into four sections: Marc’s, Serge’s, and Yvan’s residences, each comprising a sitting area and a painting reflective of their individual tastes, and the downstage region from which the characters deliver direct addresses and monologues. The effect clearly delineates separate locations while nevertheless blending seamlessly together when the staging demands. The bright, gallery-esque lighting aids in this, shifting smoothly to direct the audience’s attention around the space.

I’m not the first to point out that our world feels increasingly divided. A nonstop flood of information combined with the performative insistence of social media has transformed the social environment such that every issue, however small, demands an opinion and response. The only thing worse than not picking a side is picking the wrong one, and the greatest sin a friend can commit is to hold an opinion we find unfathomable.

Within that context, ‘Art’ (already an intriguing investigation of art and friendship) becomes a timely instructional manual on how to repair our damaged connections. Only when we meet each other in good faith and with a willingness to find compromise can we move forward together. The alternative is further siloing and the loss of our most important relationships – and that may as well be no alternative at all.

Penfold Theatre’s ‘Art’

Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale, 512/850-4849
Through Nov. 18
Running time: 1 hr., 30 mins.

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Penfold Theatre, 'Art', Yasmina Reza, Stephen Pounders, Kareem Badr, Nathan Jerkins, Ryan Crowder, Desi Roybal

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