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Going Beyond Laughs

THEATER

Yasmina Reza hopes her successful play 'Art' can deliver insights as well as humor to her audiences.

January 17, 1999|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel is a writer based in Paris

PARIS — Yasmina Reza wishes they wouldn't laugh quite so loudly. Since the original French version of "Art" premiered in Paris in 1994, says the French-born playwright, audiences have been howling through some of her best lines. When a British translation of "Art" opened in London's West End in 1996, winning an Olivier Award, people were in hysterics from the moment the curtain went up. Things were no better on Broadway when Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina performed in an updated Americanized translation, winning the 1998 Tony for best play. And now, the same cast is re-creating their roles, opening Tuesday at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

"I would not say I'm not happy to see people laugh, but I would like them to laugh at the right moments," says the 39-year-old actress-turned-playwright, with a knowing gleam in her eye. Reza has carved out an hour for an interview from the whirlwind that appears to be her life, and is sipping tea at the Hotel Lutetia, near her home on the Left Bank. Ever chic, Reza looks tired on this day; she dabs her nose with a bunched-up tissue, and behind her designer glasses, her eyes are slightly pink. But when she speaks, slipping only occasionally out of the competent English she has learned in the last few years, it's with the energy of a blizzard. "But you can't direct an audience; they do what they want," she says with a disappointed cluck of the tongue. Then she smiles her ready smile: "I would love to direct them."

There is a bitter edge to the comedy that ensues around the tangled threesome in "Art," as Serge, Marc and Yvan sit around one another's Paris apartments arguing after Serge spends 200,000 francs (about $40,000) on an all-white painting. What begins as an aesthetic debate becomes a viciously personal, bitingly funny battle that leaves them wondering aloud to each other and in a series of asides at the ties that bind them.

"American and English and French audiences all laugh at different things," said British translator Christopher Hampton, 52, whose credits include the stage and screen adaptations of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," in a separate interview. "But we were startled at the amount of laughter. It was dismaying. We even took out one or two jokes in New York about psychiatrists that [Reza] felt were pandering to a New York audience."

"I spent a lot of time drawing attention to the tragic side of the story," said 32-year-old English director Matthew Warchus by phone from backstage at New York's Royale Theatre, where "Art" is in its third Broadway cast. "I didn't want the audience to laugh so much. But they still do laugh an awful lot. It's one of those plays that the more seriously and earnestly you play it, the more people laugh. It's like 'Candid Camera,' in which the audience is laughing at a pretty horrific situation, but the people involved in the situation have no idea that what's happening is remotely funny."

Yet Reza isn't surprised that her third play has been the most successful: "It's the easiest play I've written," she says. "It can be taken at a lot of levels. It's not so easy when you read it deeply."

It was acting, not writing, that first drew Reza to the stage. But she didn't have the patience to wait by the phone for the next part, she says, so in 1987, she wrote her first play, "Conversations After a Burial," which won her a Moliere Award (the French equivalent of a Tony) for best author. The self-taught writer has been praised for her ability to write seamless dialogue. "I was very gifted," she says unapologetically. "I don't think [writing dialogue] can be learned. It's just a gift. You have it, or not." Daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish mother and an Iranian-Jewish father born in Moscow, Reza says she always felt a bit the outsider in her native France. "But I love France," she says. "It's my language, so I feel typically French as a writer. Language is the real country of a writer."

While Reza's first two plays were well-received in the state-subsidized French theater, critics were dismissive of "Art," which was a commercial hit. Even when Sean Connery co-produced "Art" in the West End, her French peers weren't the slightest bit impressed that it was the first play in decades by a modern French author to be staged in London.

"You are not really respected here if you are successful in London," she says wearily. "When I had the Tony Award and I came back here, people asked me, 'What were you doing in New York? Did you enjoy yourself?' It was like nothing."

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