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Friendship as a work of 'Art'

Longtime associations unravel in Rubicon Theatre's skillful and layered production.

September 03, 2003|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

"Nothing great or beautiful in this world has ever been born of rational argument." That offhand line from Yasmina Reza's "Art" contains the key to staging Reza's deceptively simple play about three men whose longtime friendship founders over what appears to be, well, a rational argument about the nature and value of art.

The ostensible subject of their debate, precipitated when one of them pays an absurd amount of money for a minimalist white-on-white painting, is only the jumping-off point for a complex exploration of the expectations and boundaries of friendship itself. In a superbly executed staging for Ventura's Rubicon Theatre, director Jenny Sullivan keeps an eye on the emotional ball, coaxing powerhouse performances from a first-rate cast: Cliff De Young, Joseph Fuqua and Bruce Weitz.

De Young's Marc is the classic acerbic curmudgeon; he relentlessly criticizes his friend Serge's (Fuqua's) extravagant purchase. De Young's vehemence signals an exasperation that extends far beyond philosophical contempt for what he calls the "nostalgia merchants" of modern art. Easygoing mutual pal Yvan (Weitz) doesn't much like the painting either, but he shrugs it off -- it's fine with him as long as it makes Serge happy. But for Marc, there is something more deeply personal at stake -- just why he cares so much is one of the play's central mysteries.

In increasingly heated confrontations with his friends, combined with skillfully timed asides to the audience, De Young guides us through the various layers of Marc's posturing. What ultimately disturbs Marc most, De Young reveals, is not what the painting says about Serge's judgment, but what it says about his own -- for having maintained a friendship with someone like Serge for so long.

For his part, Serge chaffs convincingly at Marc's "vile, pretentious laughter," and even delights in the irritation he's causing his friend. Casting the considerably younger Fuqua as Serge was a risky and in some ways not entirely successful choice for a play whose protagonists implicitly negotiate their relationships as peers. There isn't a false note in Fuqua's performance, but it's hard to see the basis for a close friendship lasting 15 years between two men at such different stages of life.

However, making Serge younger gives added weight to a key dynamic between them -- Marc's admission that he's always thought of himself as a mentor to Serge -- and adds an intriguing possible motive in Serge's need to extricate himself from Marc's influence -- did he buy the painting as a way of defining his own identity? Fuqua's Serge may be younger than Marc, but he's no less calculating.

In Reza's complicated, and at times frustratingly indeterminate, universe, the closest we get to pure motives are Yvan's attempts to mediate the rising tensions between his friends; in enduring the scorn and ridicule his character's efforts draw from both sides, the immensely sympathetic Weitz brings tragic depth to the dispute. With Yvan emerging as the story's wounded heart, Marc as its cold head, and Serge as its skin-deep consciousness (it's no coincidence he's a dermatologist), this production makes "Art" the compelling story of a divided body trying to mend its own fissures, while affirming there is still something in friendship worth salvaging.



Where: Rubicon Theatre Company at the Laurel, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: Wednesdays, Sundays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Thursdays, Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: Sept. 28

Price: $28-$43

Contact: (805) 667-2900

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