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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

superiority

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

Florida’s

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,

word-sparring,

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

exercised.

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

inexplicably

and oddly bonded heterosexuals would come to an abrupt end just

because

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,

white-on-white

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

called,

"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

polarizing,

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

undoubtedly

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

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 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

spectacle

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

(Willis),

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,

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. 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

apartments,

where the action shifts, are nicely evocative of these men’s

individualized

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

Art, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn,

973-376-3636. $36 to $60. Through February 4.


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