The phenomenal success of "Art" seems due to its literary flair. Yasmina Reza's existential comedy about a meltdown among three longtime friends after one buys an expensive painting blends behavioral farce with sociological essay. That dichotomy lends "Art" an accessible veneer that has dazzled audiences since its 1994 premiere at the Comedie des Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Not long thereafter, "Art" hit the English-speaking world in Christopher Hampton's idiomatic translation, winning an Olivier award and a Tony for best play in 1998.
The light-fingered East West Players production has no trouble finding the humor in Reza's witty minimalism, thanks to the capable work of director Alberto Isaac and a laudable trio of actors. Whether this counters a sense of the nebulous that lurks beneath "Art's" study of friendship gone sour is debatable.
Transpiring without an intermission, the narrative, punctuated by direct-address interjections, is simple. Serge (Francois Chau), a successful dermatologist, purchases a painting by a "well-known" artist for 200,000 francs. The white-on-white canvas, mirrored by designer Alan Muraoka's deliberately artificial set, ignites a discursive firestorm.
Serge shows the painting to aeronautical engineer Marc (Bernard White), his intellectual "mentor" and a snob beneath his classicist posturing. Appalled by Serge's independence, Marc bluntly says, "It's a piece of white . . . " Serge barely masks his dismay, and soon stationery salesman Yvan (Ryun Yu) finds himself dragged into the argument.
It's the last thing that Yvan needs -- not when he's up to his raised eyebrows in wedding plans to a woman he may not love, to say nothing of being a conciliatory flip-flopper.
"Art" gradually develops into a tripartite picture of men behaving badly while feigning civility. The personal digs climax with an act of slapstick violence, followed by a calculated bit of artistic desecration.
What sustains the East West staging is its precision, director Isaac leaving no beat unstruck and keeping the tone edgy. His designers occupy the same blank page, with Jeremy Pivnick's lighting and John Zalewski's sound adding subtle niceties without showing off.
All three actors are estimable, batting lines and reactions between each other like Wimbledon champs in costumer Ivy Y. Chou's chic wardrobe. White, always a master of economical presence, slyly negotiates Chau's honey-toned zingers, and Yu's nuanced deadpan almost steals the show.
However, their entertaining expertise cannot give "Art" the meaning that critics and crowds have assigned it. Reza fails to make her conveniently proportioned characters, their heady talk or what they inflict on each other add up to true dramatic action.
"Art" will likely be a hit yet again. At base, however, it remains an ornate sketch masquerading as a masterpiece.
Where: East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Price: $25 to $35
Contact: (213) 625-7000
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes