There’s nothing like star quality to turn yet another revival of an oft-produced play into an event—not celebrity stunt casting, but rather that combination of talent, individuality, and charisma that true stars bring to whatever project they undertake.

Such is the case with the Pasadena Playhouse’s fabulous all-star revival of Yasmina Reza’s Art, the French playwright’s Tony-winning Best Play of 1998.

It seemed for a while there that just about every theater, large or small, was presenting Art, and with good reason. Not only did Reza’s comedy win awards galore, it requires only three actors and the barest minimum of a set, i.e. it can be produced very much on the cheap.

The Pasadena Playhouse now provides proof positive just how much more Art can be when those three actors are 1) an Emmy winner, 2) an Oscar nominee, and 3) a Tony winner. Add to the mix one of our finest directors and some of the most gifted designers in this or any city, and you come up with a production that makes Art feel brand new, even for those who may have seen it on previous occasions.

For those who haven’t yet seen Reza’s intellectual comedy hit, 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 (Emmy winner Bradley Whitford) upon learning that his dermatologist best friend Serge (Oscar nominee Michael O’Keefe) 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 Art’s characters are so easy to identify with, even though we may not live in a milieu where friends go around paying 200,000 Euros 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 (Tony winner Roger Bart), 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 Euro 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.

Director Lee makes Art at the Playhouse considerably richer and funnier than Reza’s already rich and funny script, and in this he is greatly aided by his sensational trio of stars.

The terrifically versatile O’Keefe (Caddyshack, The Great Santini) brings a steely grit to Serge; you know from the get-go that this is one friend who takes himself very seriously and expects you to do the same. Whitford imbues Marc with the same cockiness and cynicism that he did Josh Lyman during his seven seasons on The West Wing—along with a bemused twinkle in the eye at the absurdity of things around him. Best of all is Broadway star Bart, reinventing Ivan as a manic bundle of quirks (watch how he checks the sofa for his missing felt tip pen cap or licks the very last bit of salt from a now empty nut bowl), a vast array of facial expressions, and the ability to recount a conversation at such high velocity and with so many different voices that it earns the actor a huge, spontaneous burst of applause.

Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz follows Reza’s instructions to the letter (the same furniture for all three men’s living rooms with only the picture over the mantle changing from apartment to apartment), but adds his own inspired touches, most particularly a Kafkaesque wall of rectangles extending to the rafters behind the men’s gray-toned flat(s), whose purpose does not become clear until the production’s breathtaking final moments. Design whiz Jared A. Sayeg lights each apartment to match its owner’s style and personality, provides stunning transitions from group scenes to individual monologs, and joins Buderwitz in the aforementioned grand finale. Philip G. Allen’s sound design combines mood-setting music with effects that complement Sayeg’s lighting shifts on numerous occasions. Kate Bergh’s costume choices fit each character to a T. Finally, special note should be made of the white painting itself, enormous, on display virtually throughout, and looking exactly as Serge describes it.

Casting is by Jeff Greenberg. LoraBeth Barr is company manager, Joe Witt production manager, Kristen Hammack associate production manager, Brad Enlow technical director, Jill Gold production stage manager, and Hethyr Verhoef assistant stage manager.

Though this reviewer has seen and raved about two previous large-stage productions of Art, its current Pasadena Playhouse revival ends up in a class by itself. Credit its director, its designers, and above all its star-quality cast for making “yet another” Art an artistic triumph for all involved.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
February 1, 2012
Photos: Jim Cox

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