Sol Theatre was good, and then it was bad, and then it was gone. Somewhere between a mind-melting production of The True Nature of Love and Unidentified Human Remains at the end of 2006 and a limp-dick trainwreck called Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night last September, Sol suffered a cataclysmic crisis of mojo. Critically ignored, deep in the red, exhausted and overcome by inertia, the company winked out of existence after Two Boys, and some said the hiatus was permanent. Thankfully, they were wrong.
Sol is back now, their mojo reclaimed. During their long and ugly collapse last year, they filled the seats by producing plays filled with kinky sex and coarse language, hoping their gleeful bad taste would distract the punters from the growing spiritual vacuum at the company's core (all the while pissing off the antediluvian zombie hoards that frequent SoFla's more entrenched theaters, which is one of artistic director Robert Hooker's favorite pastimes). It was troubling even to those who ordinarily dig filth, for artists on the wane have always compensated for scarce inspiration with shock tactics. So consider it a sign of health that after half a year of inactivity, Sol has abandoned its whole soft-core porn aesthetic. Rather than Sapphic/bestial Alices in Wonderland and naked middle-aged men fucking onstage (both Sol Staples, vintage '06), Sol is now producing a talky, thinky drama about a painting. That drama, Yazmina Reza's Art, is the 1998 Tony Award winner for Best Play.
Last year, Sol wouldn't have stopped to spit on most Tony-winners. That they're now taking on what is arguably the softest and subtlest of all '90s Tony winners seems to bode well for the company, and that they're giving it the production it deserves... Well, that's a miracle. Sometimes fate is friendly.
In this case, fate is assisted by an earthy, soulful acting job from Mr. Hooker himself. Pulling double duty as director and actor is usually very bad juju, but Hooker is remarkably self-aware. Even as a mad-as-hell "anti-modern" intellectual named Marc, he knows when to pull his punches.
This must be hard wisdom to grasp fully, because Marc is truly enraged. It's the painting that set him off: a white/off-white/sometimes-yellowish canvas with thick bands of cracked white/bone/ivory/taupe/cream paint rippling across it for which his friend, Serge, has just forked over $45,000. The painting is by an artist named Andrios, you see, and Andrios is very hot right now. Marc finds this hard to deal with, and his initial objections are ideological: he believes the art world is bloated with pretension, and that everyone in it is running a con on everyone else. His friend Serge has been sucked in, and Marc is forced to wonder whether he can be close to anyone so gullible (or worse — anyone so wrong).
Art has all the markings of a critic's show, of an artifact for aesthetes, but it's not one. This is a mixed blessing. Since we're asked early on to acknowledge that two of the play's three characters are "intellectuals," it is a bit disconcerting that their alleged intellectual acumen never materializes. Never do they get into the kind of soaring, world-historic arguments engaged in by real artfolk. Marc's big beef with modern art is with its "value system," but he never explains what that value system is or what's so wrong with it. The word "deconstruction" is used, but only when Marc accuses Serge of dropping the term into casual conversation — which means that Art skirts what is commonly perceived to be art's biggest question. Namely, "What is it?"
But by ignoring that obvious question — and the intellectual circle-jerk that inevitably occurs when anybody tries to answer it — Art gets at a slightly better question: "Why is it?" And also: "What's it worth?" $45,000? Friendship? If pieces of art are ideological or aesthetic constructs, how relevant are our feelings about them in the real world of people, places, and things? This is what Art is really about, and it's a question that gets the ickily personal treatment it demands once Yvan, a young, neurotic friend to both Marc and Serge played with a little too much verve by David Tarryn-Grae, begins a spectacular onstage meltdown that spans the play's entire second half. Yvan is the play's lone non-aesthete, and although he is friends with both Marc and Serge, he couldn't really give a shit about a big white painting. He's more concerned about a disastrous marriage he's about to enter (neither Marc nor Serge share his priorities — for them, bad marriages are far less interesting than questions about art and meaning). As Marc and Serge's friendship splinters, both men try to retain their hold on Yvan, and it becomes clear that their conflict is more personal than ideological. They're not worried about their worldviews being rejected: they're worried that their hearts are being rejected, which is a very different thing.
They're slow to admit it, of course. They make stabs at art criticism (Marc asks Serge incredulously whether he's moved by his expensive new white painting; indignant Serge insists that the canvas is most definitely not merely white). They try being urbane (Serge says to Marc, re: Seneca's The Happy Life: "It's so modern! After you read this, you don't need to read anything else."). But this is all just jockeying for position; great apes trying to outsmart and outdo each other. Long before the end of Art, you get a sense that the gentle, flighty Serge created by actor Jim Gibbons probably bought his painting just because he liked the look of it. And in Marc's reactions, in the questions the painting forces out of him and the choices those questions force him to make, a very strange function for art emerges: art as gauntlet. For the play's three characters, the painting has drawn a line in the sand. On one side is the rational, where all affiliations and affections are explicable. On the other is the human, where many affections are private and must be accepted or rejected without the benefit of shared understanding. This is a smart way of saying that Art's best questions don't have much to do with art at all, but with friendship — which, the play seems to suggest, is much more important than art, and also much harder to understand.