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THEATER REVIEW

A blank canvas or a sly work of art?

September 17, 2007|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

The focal point of "Art" is a white-on-white painting so monochromatic that it appears to be blank.

This has proven to be an apt metaphor for the play itself, for Yasmina Reza's script is also like a blank canvas. Solidly constructed if essentially mundane, the story awaits what a director, actors and a creative team can coax from it, then what audiences will project into it.

In other words, the script invites the involvement of all concerned, which goes a long way toward explaining its perpetual popularity.

Introduced in France in 1994, the piece was then translated into English by Christopher Hampton ("Les Liaisons Dangereuses") and presented in London in 1996 and on Broadway in 1998. The writing earned top honors in each country, including a Tony Award for best play.

Subsequently, "Art" has been staged at one after another of Southern California's theaters. Laguna Playhouse joins the list with a crackling, laugh-out-loud presentation directed by the theater's artistic director, Andrew Barnicle, and performed by three actors who are skilled at the fine brushwork of characterization.

An analysis of friendship couched in a discussion of aesthetics, "Art" centers on three Frenchmen and the expensive painting that comes between them.

Serge (Steve Vinovich), the painting's purchaser, beams -- comically self-congratulatory -- as he shows the canvas to longtime pal Marc (John Herzog) and puppyishly awaits praise. Marc, however, looks as if he's just been served a particularly ripe piece of fish. Not bothering to mince words, he equates the painting with a certain bodily waste. The air between them turns instantly frigid.

A third friend, Yvan (Kyle Colerider-Krugh), soon lands in the middle of this frozen landscape. He follows the codes of polite society, maintaining a what- ever-makes-you-happy attitude toward his friends.

Perhaps he's a born peacemaker or just plain wishy-washy, but he's the character with whom the audience most strongly empathizes as the testosterone-fueled disagreement between Serge and Marc turns increasingly personal.

The Laguna production is a sly mind-teaser, from the dryly minimalist black marble and leather of Dwight Richard Odle's apartment setting to the giddy acceleration of Barnicle's direction, which races to top speed before the audience quite realizes what has happened.

In the turmoil that ensues, worldviews come into play, with Serge emerging as either fashion forward or an unthinking follower of the herd and Marc as either unequivocally realistic or hopelessly closed-minded.

Yet what hits home is the play's analysis of relationships. Although Reza's scenario doesn't exactly blast open new vistas of intellectual thought, it succinctly summarizes something that we all know to be true yet hesitate to recognize: that to the people we love most, we tend to reveal both the best and the worst of ourselves. We might behave selfishly toward them or try to be selfless, but in the end, it all comes back to "self."

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daryl.miller@latimes.com

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'Art'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; also 2 p.m. Sept. 27 and 7 p.m. Oct. 7. Ends Oct. 14.

Price: $30 to $65

Contact: (949) 497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.com

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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