Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2004
Here’s the good news and the bad news, all in one sentence. The Theater Barn opened its 2004 season with a polished production of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-award winning play ART. The good news is that The Theater Barn is back for a 21st season and that director Michael Marotta and the cast of three able actors he has assembled do an excellent job with this show. The bad news is that it is this show on which they are wasting their time and talents.
ART is not a good play. It may be a great play in its original French, but this English translation by Christopher Hampton is a huge snooze. Three French men – Serge, Marc, and Yvan – have been “best friends” for 15 years. We are never given any hint of that friendship or what it is that draws these guys together. In fact, these three men behave like no men I have ever known. Maybe the problem is that they are written by a woman. Maybe the problem is cultural – maybe France, a country I have never visited, is overrun with men like this. The translation, which has all three characters speaking English in unnatural rhythms, doesn’t help, but the translator didn’t create the characters.
Serge (Stephen J. Bolte) is a divorced dermatologist who enjoys hanging out with the artsy set in Paris. He has just purchased a white-on-white painting for a large sum of money. Marc (John Philip Cromie) is an aeronautic engineer currently living with a new-age-y woman. Yvan (Michael Schaefer) used to be in textiles, but he has recently taken a job selling stationery and is engaged to be married to the niece of his new employer. They are all 40-something. For some unfathomable reason, Marc goes ballistic over Serge’s purchase of this painting.
My best friend of 20 years has in her living room a large oil painting the subject of which is a nun on a bicycle holding some helium balloons. Never in a million years would I purchase this work of art, but I actually have warm fuzzy feelings for the silly thing because it reminds me of happy hours spent at my friend’s home drinking tea and laughing at the ups and downs of life. If my pal were to die tomorrow and I was offered this painting as a memento of our friendship, I would take it. The painting isn’t “me,” its her, and I cherish her.
Are there people in this world so shallow that they would allow an object to break up their friendship? If there are and they all live in Paris then I am glad I’ve never been there! Are there straight men, and notice that we are carefully told that these men are in or have been in heterosexual relationships, who use the word “love” to describe their friendship? Frankly, if this were a play about three gay men, it would make a lot more sense. Or if this were a play about three men, regardless of their sexual preference, for whom art is life – say artists, art dealers, art critics, or professors of art. It is impossible to believe that a dermatologist, an aeronautic engineer, and a stationery salesman would get this worked up over a silly painting.
There are two great pieces of writing in this sorry piece – the last line, spoken by Marc, which finally actually sheds a tiny ray of light on to what irks him so about this painting; and a wonderful solo rant on the insanity of planning a wedding delivered by Yvan. But it is not worth sitting through 90 minutes of intensely boring drivel to get to these moments.
This is a great shame because Cromie, Bolte, and Schaefer are fine actors and good looking guys who do their darnedest to make this show entertaining. Bolte does a great job of demonstrating Serge’s genuine love for his new acquisition, along with the pompous pride he takes in acquiring it. (In case you were wondering, as I was, the two-hundred thousand French Francs that Serge pays for the painting would convert to $36,715.77 2004 U.S. dollars, if Francs were still legal tender.)
Schaefer really nails Yvan’s monologue, but then Reza leaves the character to flounder through the rest of the play being insulted for no apparent reason. Luckily the audience already likes Schaefer by then, so he becomes something of the underdog for whom we root.
Cromie actually managed to make Marc likeable. If Reza had given any logical basis for Marc and Serge’s friendship in the first place, Cromie had me ready to believe that Marc had been an older mentor-figure to Serge and that he regretted the loss of that adulation.
Abe Phelps has designed a suitably monastic and modernistic white-on-white set which serves successively as Serge’s, Marc’s, and Yvan’s apartments. Marotta, who is simultaneously the Artistic Director of the Theater Barn and the director and costume coordinator of this production, has cleverly clad Bolte and Shaefer all in black, while Cromie appears in shades of grey. Allen Phelps has saturated the whole scene with quite brilliantly colored light, undetectable until you actually look at the gelled lights, which the various shades of white absorb and which prevent the actors from looking ghostly.
The absence of any color more vivid than grey, and Marotta’s linear direction, render the entire play as monochromatic and two-dimensional as the contentious painting itself. Considering that the characters Reza has created are solidly two-dimensional as well, the overall effect is consistent and intriguing. If only the play was as interesting as the creative efforts that went into this production.
ART runs through June 27 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs 90 minutes without an intermission. Young children will be bored silly by this play, as will many adults. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004