Art Imitates Art
I had never seen a production of Art, which caused quite a stir in New York and Los Angeles productions five years ago. So, much as one anticipates laying eyes on a well-known painting such as the Mona Lisa, I was looking forward to seeing, up close for the first time, the revival of this Tony Award winner at the Stage Door Theatre. Of course, some people who have actually seen the most famous painting in the world are underwhelmed by it, having fallen victim to the hype. Now I know how they feel.
Art centers around three male friends discussing the value of a painting that one of them has purchased for a large sum of money. They ultimately get into a heated quarrel not only about the work itself but about their honest opinions of one another. It's a talky theater piece, and in the end, the conversation doesn't really say much about art or life or anything else, for that matter.
What Art does prove is how a silly argument can threaten and even end a friendship. That being said, the friends in this specific case are three men of varied backgrounds who don't even seem credible as friends in the first place. Without strong characters to root for or identify with, it's hard to justify what all the arguing is about.
But that's the tricky thing about art in general, and Art in particular it's subject to interpretation. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Some people may love it, and some people may detest it. It may be viewed as controversial or commonplace. Some, depending on their personal connection to its artistic presentation, may consider it priceless while others may see it as worthless.
I wish I could report that Yasmina Reza's intermissionless drama was life-changing or transcendent or, if nothing else, interesting. But it wasn't. It was abstract and unfocused and repetitive. There may be some deeper point the playwright is trying to make, but it wasn't clear to me.
The whole experience makes me wonder how such a celebrated stage vehicle could possibly come off as nothing more than The Emperor's New Prose. It's doubtful that something from the original French script was lost in the translation by noted playwright Christopher Hampton. More likely, the original version was just as ambiguous as its English counterpart.
Without a cohesive or compelling script, it's difficult to evaluate the efforts of the cast and crew in this particular production. Regardless, the static direction by Hugh M. Murphy does little to liven up the proceedings. The confrontations lack passion, the blocking consists mainly of characters walking from a couch to a bar and back again, and even a climactic slap to the face comes off as awkward and stagy.
As for the performers, they don't fare much better. The characterizations by Mark A. Harmon, PJ King, and Josh Mesnik are distinguishable, but all three actors are guilty of lifeless body language and forced emotions (the bouts of laughing and crying are especially painful to watch). Each performer shows signs of talent, however, indicating that the trio might excel with sharper material and direction.
An obvious culprit adding to this production's demise is the prop department. The painting in question is effective when it's turned backward and when, thanks to the multiple descriptions of it from the various characters, it's left to the audience's imagination. Yet when it is finally revealed to the audience, the all-white canvas shows signs of dark markings having been painted over after past performances, which almost ruins the only truly effective moment in the play.
There's a scene near the end of the play that illustrates how powerful it could have been. The buyer of the painting throws a felt-tip marker at one of the two friends and asks him to draw on the canvas. Even though they disagree on whether the painting has artistic merit, the fact that he paid 200,000 francs for it causes each of them (and the audience as well) to hold their breaths at the thought of someone defacing it. That says more, in a single stroke, about the value of art than all the rest of the script's frenzied brushwork.
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