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Commonweal Theater Company offers an outstanding execution of French playwright Ms. Yasmina Reza’s "Art." But don’t let the title fool you. The subject of modern art is a guise for a candid exploration into the meaning of friendship and the values that hold it together.
Imagine three men and a $200,000 painting which sends them spiraling into a tumultuous look at their friendship of fifteen years.
When Serge (played by Harold N. Cropp) proudly presents his newly acquired 4’x5’ all-white canvas, his friend Marc (Eric Lorentz Bunge) becomes quite unsettled. Unmoved by the painting, Marc questions Serge’s judgement and sanity. He tactlessly gives his opinion of the piece, using a four-letter word to describe it. Troubled and confused, Marc seeks empathy from their mutual friend Yvan.
Hearing Marc’s account of the painting, however, Yvan (Eric Knutson) seems open-mindedly ambivalent. Wanting to appease his friends, Yvan consoles Marc and agrees to see Serge and his new painting. But to Yvan’s dismay, what started as a trivial conflict between friends soon escalates into something much deeper.
The controversial painting begins to raise some obscure issues and forces the friends to take a closer look at their relationship. In the words of director Alan Bailey, "They learn a lesson over the course of the play – a lesson that many of us need to be reminded of: a friendship can unravel from the tiniest of thread if it has been neglected."
The set, designed by Shari Taylor, is simple and understated. Three large white panels with ornate molding serve as living room walls, accented with a plain white carpet. The scenes unfold at Serge’s, Yvan’s and Marc’s apartments. The main change in each scene is the painting that each character preferred to hang on their respective walls – a subtle reflection of their distinct personalities. A discrete variation in their clothing, all suits, substantiates each character’s nature.
While waiting for Yvan to arrive for an evening out, Serge and Marc’s opinions and feelings slowly begin to erupt. And just when they seem to have everything laid out on the table, Yvan bursts into the room with a hilarious account of his own trials of the day. Although Yvan’s petty tribulations seemed to have cleared the air, he has actually and unknowingly added fuel to the fire – a result that gets him dragged in to the heart of the conflict.
Speaking directly to the audience throughout the performance, the characters attempt to explain themselves to each other and examine exactly what it is that binds their friendship together. The audience might find themselves identifying more with the characters and less with the painting, which seemed to take on a life of its own at the beginning of the play.
Just when one begins to wonder if and when this wearisome battle will be resolved, Yvan’s desperate plea for something to eat causes a turn of events. The three friends unexpectedly find themselves musing over a plate of cocktail olives – a brilliant and memorable scene played out beautifully by the actors.
With some assemblage of calm restored to the room, Serge is inspired to reach out to Marc in an act that allows them to keep the friendship afloat. It takes a disturbing white lie, however, to bridge the gap. And exactly why they remain friends through all their bitterness is never really made clear. Did they actually discover what has bound them together for fifteen years? Only the audience gets to decide.
The casting of three familiar Commonweal faces, Bunge, Cropp and Knutson couldn’t have been more perfect. Bunge exerts consistent high-strung energy with a sense of urgency that draws the audience in to his cause. Cropp is a master of smugness, executing biting jabs with precise timing. Bunge’s and Cropp’s strong characters are balanced perfectly by Knutson – Yvan, the oddball and self-described buffoon. Knutson puts on a spectacular physical display that will keep you laughing. All three actors’ gestures and looks hit dead on, making for an extremely comical ninety minutes. The heated moments, of which there are several, are made funny by the character’s frank reactions.
Be prepared for these three characters to guide you down many avenues, some of which may lead into your own life. The play is truly sad and decidedly funny. What results is an uneasiness that is maintained right up to the little lie that ends it.
"Art" runs through July 14, 2001. For ticket information and curtain times, contact the Commonweal box office at 1-800-657-7025 or at www.commonwealtheatre.org.