A lot has happened in the near-20-years since Yasmina Reza’s play, Art, took Paris by storm. The art market—along with the world economy—has gone through a few booms and busts. The world of the well-heeled—or at least our perceptions of it—has changed considerably. I’m guessing a man like Serge (played in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's new production by C. Michael Wright) with $200,000 to spare would be more inclined to spend it on a Maserati or a little pied a terre in Provence than on a 4 x 5 foot “white” painting.
But such is Reza’s well-ordered world—a place where professional men argue heatedly over the relative merits of Modernism and Classicism (rather than, say, of Michael Jordan and LeBron James), and sing the praises of Roman philosopher Seneca instead of, say, Oprah or Dr. Phil.
Which makes perfect sense. For Reza’s characters it’s not the Political that is Personal, but the Intellectual. And for Serge, Yvan (Tom Klubertanz) and Marc (Brian Mani), things get very personal—and very ugly—very quickly. Even though the environs is coolly continental rather than swanky suburban, we’re not far from the territory of Bravo reality shows—“The Real Husbands of the 8th Arrondissement.”
At issue is the purchase of said painting, a pale abstraction from the 1970s by someone called simply Antrios, who is well represented in modern museums like the Centre Pompidou. It’s a small step for Antrios (who is fictional), but a giant leap for Serge, who presents the painting as if it were a badge of intellectual honor and a passport to the next level of the art cognoscenti.
It’s also a bit of a “screw you” to Marc, who fancies himself a cultural mentor to his longtime friend. Serge’s acquisition has Marc scoffing and snorting from the first moments of the play, and before the big guns come out, the two vie for the allegiance of their mutual friend Yvan, who is so wrapped up in the family micro-politics surrounding his upcoming wedding that he can barely see the canvas in all its blanched glory.
Reza’s play spins its story in a series of monologs and scenes, and director Tyler Marchant keeps them moving with a vibrant energy that’s due both to a trio of charged performances, and the whiz-bang set design of Keith Pitts. Modeled after Mondrian, it’s a little bit high modernism and a little bit ‘80s game show, with blinking rectangles of primary colors punctuating Reza’s short scenes. It’s a smart and engaging way to suggest the play’s almost geometric artifice—the cool veneer of intellect and civility.
Of course, that veneer eventually starts to bulge and buckle as real egos and emotions surface. That’s the play—and the comedy: the excavation of masked resentments and buried conflicts stretch and strain the ligaments that hold these friends together. With the Antrios as ammunition, Wright’s Serge is the coolest of the bunch. Watch the way he sits and surveys the conversations—cross-legged and dispassionate—like an analyst considering everyone’s neuroses but his own. The painting is something of a trump card for him, but Wright doesn’t play the early scenes like a panting acolyte eager for Marc’s approval. He knows that connoisseurs have the courage of their convictions.
As Marc, Mani is a commanding presence. He’s almost as cool as his rival, but his confidence is housed in a blustery but bemused package that can’t hide the angry betrayal he feels. Klubertanz plays Yvan with the appropriate manic energy. He more than anyone, cares little for arguments over art or philosophy, particularly if they strain the security of this long-standing friendly trio.
Ultimately, in spite of the insults flung and egos bruised, this “Art” affirms the values of friendship, the tenacity of certain male bonds. But it’s hardly your average 21st-century Bromance. The humor cuts deep. And even the purest white canvas bears a few scars.