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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 24,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Art’ at Paper Mill
The French always seem to have a word for it. In the
case of "Art," by French playwright Yasmina Reza, there are
lots of words. If this internationally lauded and prize-awarded play
has, in my estimation, been both over-praised and over-appraised,
it nevertheless revels audaciously in the dangers of esthetic
as well as the fragile nature of friendship.
While the Paper Mill Playhouse deserves points for presenting the
top-notch, well-acted production that was recently presented at
Coconut Grove Playhouse, I reserve the right not to wholeheartedly
cheer this 85-minute round of intellectual fisticuffs. Whether Paper
Mill regulars will embrace or merely endure this clash of three,
middle-aged contenders, who take sides and draw the lines between
the value of abstract and figurative art, remains to be seen. It isn’t
often that one sees the manly art of the bitchy putdown so artfully
However, it is hard for me to be more than mildly impressed with the
play’s basic premise: that a 15-year friendship between three
and oddly bonded heterosexuals would come to an abrupt end just
one of the trio has purchased a painting for $200,000 francs. Yet
there is no denying that the ability of a 5-foot by 4-foot,
painting by a modernist artist to incite a cataclysmic war of words
among men has the making a very funny picture. What is funnier is
that, during the play, I kept thinking of an old one-act comedy
"If Men Played Cards as Women Do." I wouldn’t be surprised
if some producer doesn’t decide to cast the play some day with three
women and change the object in contention to a $200,000 basic black
John Galliano couture gown.
It isn’t easy to embrace a play devoted to little more than
high fallutin’ opinions, even when those opinions are so glibly and
ingenuously expressed by the three excellent actors Judd Hirsch (who
also directs), Cotter Smith, and Jack Willis. Despite their determined
talents and the playwright’s determination to fuel their personalities
with esthetic posturing, we have a difficult time understanding their
relationship, thereby making us care about them.
As director, Hirsch keeps the ceaseless babble and brouhaha all within
the limits of conservative hysteria. There are those who will
be kept amused by how the painting that Marc (Hirsch), an aeronautical
engineer, has smugly and snottily denounced to its purchaser Serge
(Smith), a successful dermatologist, as a "piece of shit,"
would warrant such an outpouring of portentously expressed hostility.
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
when Serge’s personal taste and inferred disloyalty to the
and intolerably opinionated Marc is put to the test, that the play
begins to percolate. There are too few 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
of their self-deprecating 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
the lesser intellectual, but equally self-absorbed and more neutral
man-in-the-middle. 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,
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. Although Hirsch’s
word-propelled performance is geared for the Indianapolis Speedway,
he is also persuasively authoritative and autocratic as the trio’s
unofficially ordained mentor. Always an actor who brings a deeper
subtext to whatever character he is playing (recalling his 10 years
with the sorely missed Circle Rep), Smith is fascinating to watch
as he pretentiously fills the room with his own air of independence.
And we can all breathe easier when the vulnerable and fleetingly funny
Willis unwittingly assumes the most naive and most direct path to
artistic integrity, and by doing so inadvertently creates a possible
end to the hostilities.
Designer Ani Blackburn’s three white-on-white Paris minimalist
where the action shifts, are nicely 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
stroll through a SoHo gallery, good for an occasional gasp, and one
— maybe two — sighs of pleasure. Since reviewing "Art"
on Broadway in 1998, I have seen Reza’s previously written and far
superior play "The Unexpected Man," that is currently ending
a successful run Off-Broadway with Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates.
— Simon Saltzman
973-376-3636. $36 to $60. Through February 4.
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