Written by Yasmina Reza; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman; scenic and lighting design, Justin Townsend; costume design, Gail Astrid Buckley; properties design, James Wilkinson; production stage manager, Jayscott Crosley
Cast in alphabetical order:
Doug Lockwood as Yvan; Robert Pemberton as Marc; Robert Walsh as Serge
Now through February 5, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown; tickets available at the Box Office, by calling 617-923-8487 or online at www.newrep.org
As director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman discusses in his program notes for ART now at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown through February 5, we can’t choose our family but we can choose our friends. What, then, has brought – and kept – the play’s three malcontents Serge, Marc and Yvan together as friends for the past 15 years? And will their fragile co-dependent relationships survive the bitter confrontations that ensue when Serge triggers a firestorm of criticism by paying 200,000 francs for a controversial white-on-white (monochromatic) abstract painting that neither Marc nor Yvan appreciates?
Like playwright Yasmina Reza’s more recent comic tragedy (or is it tragic comedy?) God of Carnage currently performing at the Huntington Theatre in Boston through February 5, ART exposes the uncivilized underbelly of humanity that is let loose in times of stress. In Carnage, the stakes are higher and the conflict more physical when two couples come together to settle their children’s playground dispute – and end up brawling themselves. In ART, the dissent is more sardonic and more subtle but the responses of its characters so intensely personal that one wonders just what long-brewing resentments are stirred in these three men by the simple act of one’s buying a painting.
Reza never answers the questions she poses in ART, letting the audience instead view her abstractly drawn characters much as they themselves view Serge’s newly acquired abstract painting – from their own emotionally laden perspective. The notion here is that the less well defined the canvas (or personal history), the more subjective the interpretation. The play itself then becomes a work of art to be studied and discussed. It quietly draws the audience into its three-dimensional frame, revealing more and more layers, shadows and tones with each new angular look. As Serge, Marc and Yvan struggle to understand the sudden shift in balance in their relationships caused by Serge’s acquisition, the audience is invited to examine their own friendships – and decipher what lies beneath each relationship’s monochromatic surface.
The New Rep production is blessed with sterling performances by Robert Walsh (Serge), Robert Pemberton (Marc) and Doug Lockwood (Yvan). Their characterizations are so natural and interplay so fluid that Guzman’s skillful direction is rendered invisible. From Walsh’s first adoring looks at his new “Antrios” we understand volumes about what this painting means to him. First and foremost he loves the work, but more than that his purchase is a newfound source of confidence and pride. He is now a “collector” whose nondescript status has been elevated overnight – a change that the egotistical and controlling Marc finds disproportionately threatening.
As Marc, Pemberton deftly walks the very fine line Reza has drawn for him between arrogance and vulnerability. Even as he cuts Serge to the quick with his blunt denigration of the painting as worthless “shit,” there’s an underlying pain of his own that he masks with his incisive wit. Clearly he needs the affable Serge – and the neurotic Yvan – in his life. Whether or not he can continue to get his needs met after their climactic encounter topples him from the power position, however, is not as evident.
As the much put upon Yvan, Lockwood is a quivering bundle of nerves whose need to make everyone but himself happy causes him to waffle and internalize any feelings that, if expressed, might create waves. His discourse with Serge and Marc therefore consists of non-stop jabbers and stammers about his impending marriage, a no-win situation that has him caught between the demands of his fiancée, mother, step-mother, and soon-to-be mother-in-law. When Yvan finally, and predictably, loses control, it is with hilarious yet agonizing results.