The stars of last fall’s Moonlight And Magnolias are reunited as best friends in the Hermosa Beach Playhouse production of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning Art, just one of several reasons not to miss this terrific revival of the 1998 Broadway smash.


Art asks the age-old question: Is it better to tell a friend what he wants to hear—or to say exactly what you think and damn the consequences?

This is the dilemma facing Parisian aeronautical engineer Marc (Joel Bryant) upon learning that his dermatologist best friend Serge (Cylan Brown) has shelled out a small fortune for a “canvas about five feet by four, white.” That’s right. A canvas painted entirely white. Now admittedly, a closer look does reveal 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. Still, the fact is that, as far as Marc is concerned, the painting is crap, and worthless crap to boot. Therefore, he concludes, kindness be damned, Serge needs to hear the truth, and he blurts out: “You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?!”

Can’t you just see said shit hitting 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.”

As the action unfolds, it soon becomes clear that Marc 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 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 (Patrick Vest), 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.

English playwright Christopher Hampton has translated Reza’s original French into British English, which when spoken à l’Américaine by the three Hermosa Beach stars comes across just mannered enough to let us know we’re not in the United States and that these three men are not Americans. That Brown, Bryant, and Vest do absolutely bang-up work under Stephanie A. Coltrin’s splendid direction will surprise no one who saw them in Moonlight And Magnolias, nor will Coltrin’s directorial finesse.

Brown and Bryant set precisely the right tone from their very first scene together, one which keeps the two men silent for the longest time as each regards the painting, then the other man, then the painting, then the other once again in an attempt to read his mind, Serge trying to gauge Marc’s thoughts and Marc struggling to find just the right words to describe what he eventually refers to as “this shit.” It’s an absolutely delicious scene.

From this point on, it’s great fun to watch the pair bicker as only long-time friends can do, each steadfastly clinging to the belief that he and he alone is right. Bryant manages to make the pretentious Marc not only not insufferable but for the most part downright sympathetic, particularly in communicating to the audience Marc’s feeling of being betrayed by a trusted friend. In the same way, Brown’s delightfully quirky work here makes us like Serge even as we feel a good deal of Marc’s disdain for his misguided passion for a painting that may not be worthless, but is certainly not worth ₣200,000.

Completing the trio is Vest, on a roll since November, Yvan representing his fourth star turn this season. Following his bang-up work as legendary movie producer David O. Selznick in Moonlight And Magnolias, his terrific performance as stuffy young lawyer Paul Bratter in Barefoot In The Park, and his tables-turning role as macho chauvinist Petrucchio in The Taming Of The Shrew, Vest now makes it four winners in a row with an Yvan torn between loyalty to both friends, a desire to speak the truth, and a confusion about just what the truth is. It’s another bravura performance from an actor who has been this year’s unofficial HBP Resident Leading Man, and deservedly so.

Reza’s play unfolds in a series of scenes taking place in each of the three friends’ apartments, represented by a single set described by the playwright as being “as stripped-down and neutral as possible” with nothing changing, “except for the painting on the wall.” Talented scenic designer Christopher Beyries brings Reza’s concept to life in a modular white set, the central panel of which has a framed picture that revolves from painting to painting, each one reflecting its owner’s personality. Lighting designer Ric Zimmerman does his accustomed impressive work on Beyries’ set, spotlighting each actor during his monologs and asides to the audience, bathing the set in the brightest of whites for Marc’s sterile apartment, and creating subtle changes for the other two flats. Costume designer Christa Armendariz clothes each man in a single character-defining outfit. Kevin Gould’s sound design completes the design package with some well-chosen music. Stacy Davies is production stage manager, Ricarda (Ricki) McKissock stage manager, April Metcalf hair and wig designer, and Nicole Wessel assistant director.

Art at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse provides ninety minutes of great, intelligent talk, multiple laughs, and enough topics of conversation to fill the ride home from the theater, and then some. It’s a splendid finale to what has been a particularly memorable season at the Playhouse.

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 170 Pier Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.
–Steven Stanley
May 19, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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