“How do you like my new haircut?” 
“Don’t you just love my new outfit?” 
“What do you think about my new sunglasses?” 
How many of us have not been asked one of these questions and been faced with the age-old dilemma—to tell the truth, i.e. the whole unpleasant truth, or to avoid trouble by telling a little white lie.  “It looks marvelous on you! You’ve never looked better. I’m going right out to get some too!” How much easier it is to avoid hurting a friend’s feelings, and at the same time how frustrating and annoying, when what you really want is to tell your friend what an enormous mistake he or she has made. 

That’s the dilemma you’d be facing if you were Marc, a forty-something Parisian aeronautical engineer who has just learned that his best friend Serge, a successful dermatologist, has just paid a small fortune for a “canvas about five feet by four, white.”  That’s right. A canvas painted entirely white. Oh, your friend will tell you that if you look closely, you can see diagonal white lines painted atop the white surface of the canvas, and perhaps, if you squint and look really hard, you might be able to find them before they once again merge into the all-white backdrop. The fact is that, as far as you’re concerned, the painting is crap, and worthless crap to boot. And so you think: Kindness be damned; my friend needs to hear the truth, and you blurt out: “You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?”—and then watch the friendship shit hit the fan.

Perhaps it’s because every one of us has been faced with a similar conundrum that the characters in Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning Art are so easy to identify with, even though we may not live in a milieu where friends go around paying $50,000 for “art.” 
The French playwright’s 1994 comedy, translated by Christopher Hampton, has just opened East West Players’ 2009-2010 season under Alberto Isaac’s razor-sharp direction, and it’s one of the Asian-American theater organization’s best productions yet. 
As the action unfolds, it soon becomes clear that Marc (Bernard White) has seen himself over the years as Serge’s mentor in matters of culture and art, and his friend’s assertion that the white painting is worth every centime he paid for it because it is “an original Antrios” is a rejection of everything Marc has tried to teach him. Serge (François Chau) sees things differently. “Contemporary painting…is a field about which you know absolutely nothing,” he tells Marc, “so how can you assert that any given object, which conforms to laws you don’t understand, is shit?”  Without missing a breath, Marc replies succinctly, “Because it is.  It’s shit.  I’m sorry.” 
It should be clear from the above exchange that Reza’s play is not only funny, but intelligent (and intelligently written) as well. In fact, rarely has there been a play that tickles the funny bone and stimulates the brain in equal measure as well as Art does. 

Caught smack dab in the middle of this quarrel between close friends is the third member of their triumvirate, Yvan (Ryun Yu), who responds noncommittally to Marc, “If it makes him happy…” and to Serge’s multiple queries, “Yes, yes,” and “Mm … yes …” and “Mm hm,” ending up with a “very reasonable” when asked about the painting’s ₣200,000 price tag. Yvan has enough problems of his own—a new job in the stationary business and an upcoming wedding to Catherine—to take the chance of siding with one of his friends and not the other. 
As Marc and Serge vie for Yvan’s approval and as Yvan begins to unravel a bit from the stress, playwright Reza makes us laugh (a lot) and think—about the meaning of art and fashion and taste, and about how delicate a friendship can be when its dynamics are upset by change. 
East West Players’ production is beautifully performed by three of the finest Asian American actors in town, and an eclectic trio they are.  Chau is Cambodian-American of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, White is Sri Lankan-born, and Yu is Korean-American.  It’s great fun to watch Chau and White bicker as long-time friends aren’t afraid to do, each steadfastly clinging to the belief that he and he alone is right.  Even more fun is watching Yu get the lion’s share of laughs with his deliciously deadpan delivery. Chau and White wear their emotions on their sleeves, and show it in their voices as they quarrel.  Yu’s deliberate monotone mirrors Yvan’s refusal to take sides, keeping Yvan’s real feelings about the painting as much a secret to the audience as they are to Marc and Serge. 

Reza’s play unfolds in a series of scenes taking place in each of the three friends’ apartments, represented by a single set, in the playwright’s words “as stripped-down and neutral as possible.” As we move from Serge’s apartment to Marc’s to Yvan’s, “nothing changes, except for the painting on the wall.” Scenic designer Alan E. Muraoka follows Reza’s instructions to the letter, in a gorgeous très moderne white-on-white set, one of whose walls revolves to change from painting to painting. Yvan’s is precisely the kind of nondescript canvas we might expect from him (turns out his father painted it); Marc’s is, not unexpectedly, a classic landscape of the Carcassonne region; and Serge’s is a blank white wall just waiting for the white-on-white painting to be hung. 

Lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick initially bathes the set in rainbow colors like light seen through a prism, but as soon as the action commences, it changes to various shades and degrees of white, a gorgeous lighting design and a perfect complement to Muraoka’s set. Sound designer John Zalewski underscores much of the action with faint, suspenseful hums and buzzes, upping the sense of drama underneath the laughs. Ivy Y. Chou’s costumes are precisely the outfits that these three affluent Parisians might well have chosen for themselves. 

The East West Players season couldn’t be getting off to a better start than it is with Art.  As with past productions of Proof and Equus, EWP is offering its audience one of the most lauded plays of recent years. It’s also giving three members of the Asian American acting community the opportunity to play roles that they might otherwise not be cast in (for no logical reason I might add).  Ultimately, it ends up being ninety minutes of great, intelligent talk, multiple laughs, and enough topics of conversation to fill the ride home from the theater, and then some.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
September 16, 2009
                                                                               Photos: Michael Lamont

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