Corrections or additions?
These reviews by Simon Saltzman were published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
April 8, 1998. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Art’
The over-praised (or is it over-appraised?) British
import "Art," by Yasmina Reza, will undoubtedly find a Broadway
audience eager to cheer the middle-aged, middle-class contenders in
this 90-minute round of intellectual fisticuffs. The manly art of
the bitchy put down achieves world-class status in this clever little
conceit of a play in which three word-sparring middle-class men take
sides and draw the lines between the value of abstract and figurative
However, it’s hard for me to be more than mildly impressed with the
play’s basic premise: that a 15-year friendship between three oddly
bonded heterosexuals would come to an abrupt end just because one
has purchased a painting for 200,000 francs. Yet there is no denying
that the ability of a five-by-four, white-on-white painting by a modernist
artist to incite a cataclysmic war of words among men has the making
of a very funny picture. Okay, I laughed a little. But this kind of
story was funnier in an old one-act play called, "If Men Played
Cards as Women do."
It is difficult to embrace a play devoted to little more than polarizing
high fallutin’ opinions, even when those opinions are so glibly and
ingenuously expressed by the three excellent actors Alan Alda, Victor
Garber, and Alfred Molina. This trio has a ball with their outrageously
insignificant, esthetically indefensible characters. And director
Matthew Warchus orchestrates the ceaseless babble and reckless brouhaha
with a curator’s meticulous sense of control. There are those who
will undoubtedly be kept amused by how the painting that Marc (Alan
Alda), an aeronautical engineer, has smugly and snottily denounced
to its purchaser Serge (Garber), a successful dermatologist, as a
"piece of shit," would warrant such an outpouring of portentously
Marc’s insensitive assault on his friend’s values, first based on
the cost of the painting, and then on its arguable worth, sets the
play’s testy tone. But it is the secondary attacks and counter-attacks,
when Serge’s personal taste and inferred disloyalty to the condescending
and intolerably opinionated Marc is put to the test, that the play
begins to percolate. There are moments when the characters are allowed
to appear as compassionate, sensitive people, able to feel and be
hurt. That is when they are not engaged in making a spectacle of their
self-deprecating, self-defeating bitterness.
At first, Marc’s ostensibly artistic judgment appears
as qualitatively enlightened as it is tiresomely articulated. It is
to our great relief that Marc is ultimately challenged, not by the
equally pretentious defensive rhetoric from Serge, but by Yvan (Molina),
the unwitting, self-absorbed but more neutral arbitrator. As such,
he becomes prey to his buddies’ ravenous appetite for an unsuspecting
scapegoat. The play peaks when Yvan takes a hilariously digressive
path from the rage and fury about art that is tearing their friendship
apart to tear into a protracted, angst-driven monologue about how
his wedding plans have gone haywire.
One can assume that Christopher Hampton’s translation loses little
of the brittle and acerbic resonance of Reza’s text. Alda is scarily
convincing as the trio’s unofficially ordained mentor. Garber almost
steams up the apartment with his dangerously compressed air of independence.
And we can all breathe easier when the wonderfully funny Molina smartly
assumes the most naive and most direct path to artistic integrity,
and by doing so inadvertently creates a possible end to the hostilities.
Designer Mark Thompson’s three white-on-white Paris minimalist apartments,
where the action inexplicably shifts, are as stunning as they are
evocative of these men’s fears of an independent esthetic. Not very
deep, hardly provocative, and almost too precious for its own good,
"Art" is, like a 90-minute stroll through SoHo, good for a
few laughs, an occasional gasp, and one — maybe two — sighs
of pleasure. HH
— Simon Saltzman
or 212-239-6200. $45 to $60.
While "Freak" is not my cup of tea, I have to
say that its author and solo performer John Leguizamo is a dazzlingly
talented entertainer and a terrific actor. But getting through his
raucous, riotous, rant-filled, one-man, multi-character stand-up and
spill-all dramatic comedy routine called "Freak" can be a
trial — that is if you aren’t one of the already initiated. You
have to be prepared for the disturbing and frenzied ways that this
exuberant mimic, mime, dancer, and story-teller enlivens the most
intimate and painful moments of his life. And under David Bar Katz’
flexible direction, Leguizamo chooses not to be confined to the limits
set by the proscenium arch.
It’s hard not to be impressed by such a relentlessly driven talent
as Leguizamo exhibits. And when Leguizamo’s multi-layered facial and
body contortions are set in motion, look out. Whether you’ve seen
his earlier stage outings, "Mambo Mouth" (1991) and "Spic-O-Rama"
(1994), in which he demonstrated his uncanny ability to extract the
essence and attitudes of multi-racial characters, as seen from the
perspective of one passionate insightful Nueva York Latino, or know
his excellent film work in "To Wong Foo…," "Romeo and
Juliet" (as Tybalt opposite Leonardo DiCaprio), Leguizamo makes
an unforgettable impression.
In the case of the redemptive and apparently soul-purifying "Freak,"
Columbia-born Leguizamo is giving us slices from his life. There’s
one helluva dysfunctional family exorcised by Leguizamo as he gets
off his chest what it meant to grow up poor and instinctively rebellious.
His explosive, vengeful narrative places unmerciful emphasis on his
punitive father’s mistreatment of him, and the unhappy marriage of
his parents. That he transforms himself into his macho father "The
King of Tenements" as effortlessly as he affects his mother’s
risibly defensive air of sensuality is awesome. Growing up in Jackson
Heights, Queens, Corona, and the Bronx, and the toughening experiences
among hostile ethnic types, are generously flecked with some outrageously
funny commentary. There is no denying the affection he is now able
to express for the Irish and Italians, impersonating them with a reflective
accuracy, even in the meanest of encounters.
The only sour notes in Leguizamo’s otherwise hot and hip discourse,
comes from his being too patently vulgar and sexually explicit. Of
course, the under-40s in the audience thought it was just great and
cheered him on. His protracted and overly detailed memory about how
his father forced him to lose his virginity to a fat old German sexpot
in the back of a Kentucky Fried Chicken store is really gross. But
the most compelling of the several dozen characters that this feverishly
energized young man in black nylon trousers and a Mets tee shirt portrays
are family members, including a gay deaf uncle, friends, and, of course,
himself. Unlike the recent "Capeman," "Freak" embraces
the optimistic heart and the uplifted soul of a Latino. HH
— Simon Saltzman
or 212-239-6200. $17.50 to $55. Extended. Rush tickets in the first
two rows of the orchestra are available on the day of each performance
for $17.50 (limit two per person).
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