The art in "Art," the short, slender and often very funny play by Yasmina Reza that opened Sunday night at the Royale Theater, is a 4-by-5-foot white-on-white painting, unadorned by anything figurative. Though Ms. Reza's comedy is set in the Paris of today, the painting in it that causes such trouble is not what you would call cutting-edge contemporary.
It is in fact quite classic looking, the sort of abstract work that was being used at least four decades ago in derisive jokes about about how fraudulent modern art is. You could imagine one of Helen Hokinson's genteel ladies standing before it with an aggrieved expression in a vintage New Yorker cartoon.
The play that surrounds the painting is, in a sense, of a piece with it. "Art," a 1994 French work that has achieved spectacular success in Paris and London and has already been performed in 20-some languages, is also minimalist, clean and attractively geometric.
While its three characters, who argue viciously over their responses to the painting, are by no means abstract, they are of a reassuringly generic ilk that makes it clear why this comedy crosses cultural barriers with such ease. True, they wear the sort of chic, monochromatic outfits so in vogue these days and toss around words like "deconstruction."
But mostly the men of "Art," appealingly embodied by Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina, wouldn't have seemed out of place on a New York stage in the early 1960s, when the urbane sketches of Mike Nichols and Elaine May were the last word in comic sophistication.
"Art" belongs to a tradition that once flourished on Broadway but is seldom represented there these days: the sleek, pleasant comedy of manners with an intellectual veneer that allows audiences to relax at the theater without feeling they're wasting time. It's an impeccably tailored piece of work, with virtues nicely underscored by Matthew Warchus' disciplined direction and three astute performances, and it's not empty-minded. But at 90 intermissionless minutes, it is also slight and nonabrasive enough to let you sandwich it between drinks and dinner for an easygoing night on the town.
The plot revolves around the purchase of the aforementioned painting (for the equivalent of $40,000) by Serge (Garber), a Parisian dermatologist of anxious intellectual pretensions. The acquisition sparks dissonant responses from his two best friends. Marc (Alda), the oldest and most judgmental of the trio, is aghast that someone with whom he thought he shared deep affinities should invest a hefty sum in a painting he dismisses as a joke.
Yvan (Molina), a younger man with a hazy sense of direction in life, is more propitiatory. Hopeful of pleasing both of his longtime comrades, he bends obligingly between the two, an attitude that turns out to be just as alienating as Marc's forthright contempt and Serge's injured defensiveness. As the exchange of recriminations becomes increasingly violent, the three men are forced to wonder if they ever had anything in common. That idea creates a prospect that is, of course, unbearably lonely.
This underpinning of sadness gives "Art" a certain emotional gravity, and Ms. Reza has said she considers her play as much a tragedy as a comedy. But she fails to establish a solid emotional base for her characters' friendship. She's given them a few defining idiosyncracies, like Marc's reliance on homeopathic medicine, but fundamentally these men are archetypes.
When, late in the play, Marc laments the loss of his role as mentor to Serge, it disrupts the hitherto seamless flow of the evening. The assertion doesn't feel earned by anything that's come before, and you fall out of the carefully self-contained world of the play.
The level on which "Art" works, and works quite successfully, is as a limber comic exercise in escalating tensions. The play begins by sounding the first note in a debate that almost instantly turns from academic to personal, when Serge first shows the painting to Marc. Most of what follows is a spirited anatomy of clashing perspectives and shifting alliances that is less a study in character than situation.
Indeed, the mirth to be mined from mounting friction among old friends is as ancient as commedia dell'arte and an abiding staple of American sitcoms. You might find yourself thinking of those "I Love Lucy" episodes in which Lucy and Ethel would fall out over something as seemingly insignificant as their taste in dresses. This, after all, is a play in which a character will say, "I'm not touchy," with infinite touchiness.
While Ms. Reza's script, in Christopher Hampton's fluid translation for the London production, with some colloquial amendments for American audiences, provides monologues of spare eloquence for each of the characters, words are secondary here. You could even envision mimes like Bill Irwin and David Shiner performing the play without too much being lost.
The roles in "Art" are coveted by actors. (Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay were in the original London production.) It's easy to understand why: the work has a balletic timing and precision that allows performers to stretch muscles they don't get to use very often. The three actors assembled here don't disappoint. Under Warchus' truly elegant direction, perfectly set off by Mark Thompson's impersonal, tone-on-tone set and Hugh Vanstone's matching lighting, they keep reconfiguring the play's psychic triangle with charming deftness and flexibility.
Their postures, which bring to mind those of the angular neurotics in Feiffer cartoons, are especially articulate. Just watch the telling counterpoint of Alda's and Garber's hands and arms in the opening scene. And the use of complicitous laughter, which indicates who's on whose side at a given moment, is terrific.
Alda is perfectly cast as a man with a smirk in his voice. (The superior smirk was his specialty on the sitcom version of "MASH.") He doesn't quite pull off Marc's big moment of self-revelation, but it's a tough thing to do in the limited context of this play. Garber is excellent in balancing Serge's vanity and vulnerability: you're always aware of the open, woundable child behind the posturing esthete.
But it's Molina's hapless Yvan, a blundering sheep dog of a man, who is most affecting. And his exasperated, pyrotechnic rendering of Yvan's monologue about the politics of his wedding invitations justifiably stops the show.
Don't be misled by the title or the European pedigree of "Art." It is far from a Stoppardesque consideration of the role of esthetics or the kind of talky clash of confused identities found in Eric Rohmer's movies.
It is more subtle than traditional slapstick is, but it shares slapstick's vision of a world always waiting to trip you up and send you spinning into collisions with even your closest friends. The banana peel, in this instance, just happens to be a painting.
Fancy. Perhaps Donald Trump was right all along, and life really is the art of the deal. You see, Jasmina Reza’s wildly funny, naughtily provocative comedy “Art,” which opened joyously at the Royale Theater last night, is ostensibly about, well, art.
But really it isn’t. It has only peripheral interests in art, artists and their appreciation or lack thereof. No, the play is about friendship. And not simply about friendship, but the transactions, bargains and insights which friendship involves.
Indeed, friendship as the art of the deal – or you rub my back and I’ll watch. I will identify myself through my friendship with you, even while you are going through the same identity process with me.
We are very much who are friends are – or, if you like, how we see ourselves seeing our friends is very much a module of our own view of ourselves. You don’t believe me? Well, go and see “Art.” You should anyway – you’ll love it.
So – there are these three guys in Paris who have been buddies for 15 years. One, Serge (Victor Garber) is a successful dermatologist, Marc (Alan Alda) is an aeronautical engineer, and Yvan (Alfred Molina) is…well, Yvan isn’t much of anything. At the moment he is trying, for the upteenth attempt, a new career, this time in stationery and greetings cards, with the help of a future in-law.
For 15 years these three gritty Parisians have rubbed each other up the right way, undertaken all the proper amicable massages and transactions. But right now - after all those 15 years - a fly has flown right into the emollient ointment.
Serge has bought a painting - quite expensive, 200,000 francs (about $40,000) - by a fashionable artist. It's a white-on-white canvas. He is delighted, and cannot wait to show it to his friends.
Marc - whose ultra-conservative taste scarcely runs to post-modernism or deconstruction - roars with malicious laughter, and declares the white, virtually virgin canvas, to be nonsense at best, a fraud at worst.
Had he been the 19th-century scholar Ruskin writing about the artist Whistler, Marc might have called it "flinging a pot of white paint in the public's face." Reza's discussion of art is once again that classic and that basic.
Anyone who has ever had a yahoo impulse to scream with rage, or laugh with impotent fury at what we consider the latest outrage of the avant-garde - and surely all of us, at some time, have had just that feeling - will roar with laughter.
Fine, but to some extent, we will be laughing at the wrong thing, or at least only part of the joke. For Reza, through her accomplished and urbane English translator, Christopher Hampton, has subtler fish to fry.
Marc loved Serge largely because he thought that, Pygmalion-like, he had formed him, his character and, naturally, his tastes. Now his perceived statuesque Galatea is jumping off the pedestal.
As for Yvan, he played a different role in this triangulated relationship. He was the umpire-buffoon, winning his ticket to ride by his willingness to be the amusing, but grateful, observer of his friends' superiority. He pratfalls over, bears witness and testifies to the other two's good opinion of themselves.
How does it all work out? See, with delight, for yourselves. The play is an enormous hit both in Paris and London, and the Broadway production is identical, if minimally fine-tuned in idiom, to the West End version.
Matthew Warchus, the London director, and Mark Thompson, who provided the minimalist designs, are repeating their assignments. Warchus does wonders with the cast - if the playwright Pinter can be credited with the "pregnant pause," the Warchus deserves credit for the "pregnant glance."
His staging is full of silent, frozen gobbets of emotion, and his three wonderful actors gobble up them, and Reza's text, with enjoyable and almost undisguised actorly relish.
The damaged Garber (marvelous), the baffled yet hysteric Molina (the distinguished British actor making his Broadway debut), and the aggressive Alda (who, incidentally, has never been better in anything, and I speak as a deep admirer) play together like men who have been friends for 15 years. (It doesn't matter, actually, but their ages don't quite gel, but you soon forget this.)
Given decent actors and Warchus' game-plan, the roles are virtually foolproof - as London has already shown - but these three are very special. Catch them while they're hot, and pity the poor Tony nominators and voters having to choose between them.
The value of "Art" will be the subject of appraisal for some time to come. Overhyped during its smash London run, Yasmina Reza's one-act comedy-drama about three old friends torn apart over an expensive painting is indeed a pleasure to look at and savor, though one suspects some power has been lost as the play has taken on the weight of expectations. Even a terrific cast might not be able to keep audiences from silently asking, "This is 'Art?' "
That said, the play is indeed a smart portrait of friendship and its complexities, responsibilities and burdens. It's difficult to imagine the celebrated London cast (Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott) being any better than the trio of actors in the Broadway production (Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina). Matthew Warchus reprises his elegant direction, and Mark Thompson's beautiful set design is at once stately and spare.
Turning on a plot point so seemingly inconsequential it could be lifted from any "Seinfeld" episode (actually not a far-fetched comparison), "Art" spins on the purchase by Serge (Garber) of a 200,000-franc, all-white modernist painting of 1970s vintage. The purchase at first stuns, then infuriates Serge's best friend of 15 years, the smug, anti-intellectual Marc (Alda), who interprets Serge's growing pretension as both a threat and betrayal. "I've been replaced," Marc will say later, "by this painting and everything it implies."
Watching helplessly as his clique of friends self-destructs is Yvan (Molina), a conciliatory, easily swayed man of no strong opinion, his contribution to the group being an entertaining, self-deprecating humor. Yvan wants only to be liked and to have his two best friends present at his upcoming nuptials.
Though it's rather like kicking a puppy, Marc and Serge do not spare Yvan either their wit or their anger, and the ongoing debate over the painting unravels the delicate balances that all three friends have relied upon. Marc, whose ego depends on his status as the group's iconoclastic leader, simply can't handle Serge's newfound (or newly expressed) intellectual independence, deeming it affectation and posturing. Serge can't tolerate Marc's self-satisfaction, and Yvan wants only a fun evening with his friends in order to escape the panic of his ill-conceived engagement.
Reza's play (effectively translated by Christopher Hampton) sharply captures the strategic allegiances of friendship as her three characters takes sides, pair off and gang up on one another. As brutal truths are revealed, the question of why the friendship exists at all comes to the fore, and it is to the play's credit that despite all the intellectual debate, a rational answer is elusive. Friendship exists and persists for reasons that even these three self-examiners can't fully grasp.
Profound? Not particularly. Revelatory? Hardly. The arguments over modernism seem so dated they're quaint, but "Art" is a compact little snapshot of one friendship, and as such conveys truth. And it's very funny in the bargain.
Warchus directs his impressive cast with a grace that well serves the angst and rage boiling beneath the friends' chatty, comical banter. When tempers flare, as they surely do, the eruptions are all the more effective for the buildup. Only the climax seems mishandled, emphasizing laughs over horror.
Alda is wonderful as the nasty-spirited Marc, layering even the character's laughter with cynicism and cruelty. Garber is flawless, his desperation for Marc's approval matched only by his infuriation over the need. And Molina, handed the first scene-stealer in a lengthy, panicked and breathless monologue about the hurt feelings and flared tempers that accompany wedding plans, is a revelation. The regular-guy role of Yvan is a departure for the actor, and he nails it.
The performances alone would warrant the play's Broadway unveiling. "Art," too thin to rank even as a minor masterpiece, nonetheless takes a deserved place in the Broadway gallery.