Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning play "Art" could just as legitimately have been called "Friends."
That might have boosted telephone traffic to the box office at South Coast Repertory, where "Art" is in previews on the Mainstage. No, the attendants would have to say, this doesn't involve Jennifer Aniston and her sitcom buddies, but it's funny and maybe you'd like to buy a ticket anyway.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 24, 2000 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor misidentified--Actor Steven Culp, currently appearing in "Art" at South Coast Repertory, was misidentified as the son of actor Robert Culp in a story Oct. 16.
Like the typical American television comedy, "Art" is about a close circle of cronies behaving outrageously toward one another in ways that seem petty, silly and eminently laughable. When the play, translated by Englishman Christopher Hampton from Reza's original French, played in London's West End and then on Broadway, the creative team actually was a bit miffed because audiences were laughing too much.
"We were startled. . . . It was dismaying," Hampton said in a 1999 interview with The Times on the eve of the Los Angeles opening of "Art," featuring the original Broadway cast with Alan Alda.
Director Mark Rucker and Steven Culp, John de Lancie and Stephen Markle, the three veteran actors who make up the South Coast cast, said that part of the fun and part of the challenge of doing "Art" is that it's hard to tell where the laughs will fall and how intense they will be.
"I think we're just going to have to wait for that . . . audience to see where we are, and to let the audience tell us how far we can go or if we've gone too far" in emphasizing or de-emphasizing laugh lines, de Lancie said. "That's kind of neat. It's a little scary and different than other plays."
"Art" is about three men and an all-white painting. Serge, a newly converted connoisseur of modern art, has bought the picture for 200,000 francs, or about $50,000. He insists he can see remarkable subtleties in it--including shades of color. Marc, a staunch traditionalist who hates novelty, instantly pronounces it a piece of manure. Deep fault lines in their friendship rapidly emerge as a third friend, the hapless Yvan, tries to play peacemaker and only gets caught in the cross-fire.
Rucker and the three actors didn't see the Broadway or Los Angeles productions; when the director picked up the script, he assumed "Art" would be a fairly frothy affair.
"I thought, 'Oh, it's going to be this total comedy, probably a little [superficial],' " Rucker said. "I was surprised, and I keep being surprised, at how much more is going on. The serious things that are underneath and come to the surface are things we all really want to serve. It's tremendously funny, and a lot of its humor comes out of its truth."
Some of the play's unpredictable effect on American funny bones may stem from its very Frenchness. Do most Americans care enough about art and its philosophical implications to get into a friendship-busting, scorched-earth argument, as Serge and Marc do?
Perhaps the biggest cultural difference is the sheer openness with which the characters lay out their feelings. And while the excesses of that forthrightness jeopardize the friendship, their honesty gives them a foundation, by the play's end, for rebuilding what they've spent 90 minutes willfully tearing apart.
"They are very lucky," said Markle, who plays Serge. "They battle openly, as opposed to what we sometimes do in this country."
The show's program notes include quotations about friendship aimed at focusing the audience's thoughts about the play, starting with these famous verses from William Blake:
I was angry with my friend
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
The actors' challenge is to turn this free-for-all of clashing ideas into a fair fight among friends.
At the start, Serge stands figuratively as naked as the emperor in his new clothes. Most, if not all, onlookers will see him as an intellectual poseur who has bought a ridiculous painting for a ridiculous sum, and will nod, in the opening scene, when Marc dismisses it with a series of pithy epithets.
Markle, whose career has taken him from soaps (a regular part on "One Life to Live") to Shakespeare (five productions of "Macbeth"), aims to outfit Serge with an undeniable passion that will help him overcome the seeming ridiculousness of his position--and prepare the audience for the surprising, self-sacrificing gambit that Serge uses to initiate a reconciliation.
The actor sees his character, a recently divorced dermatologist who lives in an austere apartment, as a man of fleeting, yet large, passions. For Rucker and Markle, Serge's changeableness, rather than his taste in art, is what really threatens the insecure Marc and causes his extreme attack on the white painting.
Serge has to be persuasive as a true lover of art, even if the art seems incomprehensible to us.