Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 32
 
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
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Music/Theater

(Photo by Jeff Reeder for NJOpera)
STRAINED RELATIONSHIPS: Marc (Daniel Kublick, left), Serge (Robert Walsh, center), and Yvan (Andy Hoover, right) find their long-term friendship taxed to the limit when Serge buys an expensive all-white painting. Princeton Summer Theater's final offering of the season plays at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 12.

Art? Friendship? How Much Are They Worth? Who Decides? PST’s “Art” Explores Aesthetics, Identity, Relationships

Donald Gilpin

It’s a large painting: all white. About five by four. You might be able to make out three fine white diagonal lines on the white canvas. That’s it. Your best friend, who’s not rich, has just bought this work of art for about $40,000. What do you think? What do you say? How do you react? Will this surprising purchase affect your friendship?

Yasmina Reza’s internationally acclaimed, award-winning comedy Art (1994) poses these questions and more, as it wraps up a superb season on a high note for the talented 2007 Princeton Summer Theater Company. Call early for tickets. This final weekend may be standing room only at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

Art — a 1994 hit in Paris, Olivier Award winner in London’s West End two years later in its current translation into English by Christopher Hampton, and a Tony Award winner in 1998 with a Broadway run of 600 performances — is a play of ideas, guaranteed to provoke thought and debate about aesthetics. What is art? How it can it be judged and evaluated? Are promoters of those minimalist all-white, all-black or all-blue paintings enlightened modernists, scam artists, or simply deluded suckers? What does art reveal about its viewers, the appreciators and the detractors?

But this play is not a dry intellectual exercise. It is certainly about art, but, even more prominently, it is about friendship. Ms. Reza, French playwright, actress, novelist, and screenwriter, has plenty of substance here for the intellectual audience, but also a generous dose of surprisingly light and entertaining comedy.

Director Shannon Lee Clair and her three actors, all in their early twenties, bring to life with poise, intelligence, and flair this ninety-minute exploration of art and the complexities of friendship,

Art is an actors’ play, featuring three richly developed characters; sparkling Reza-Hampton dialogue that deftly captures the idiosyncrasies of the angst-ridden upper middle-class, middle-aged male; and ample comic material. Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina starred in the original Broadway production, and three of PST’s finest — Daniel Kublick, Robert Walsh, and Andy Hoover, though taking on characters twice their age, rise to the challenges to present convincingly this sophisticated comedy-drama.

The play takes place in the three Paris apartments of the three friends, through a series of scenes and monologues over the course of a few days. Serge (Mr. Walsh), earnest and at times condescending, has just purchased for 200,000 francs (approximately $40,000) an all-white canvas by the renowned contemporary artist Antrios.

His friend Marc (Mr. Kublick), a classicist, traditional and snobbish in his artistic tastes, neither hides his disdain nor holds back his scathing criticism of the work and the negative implications of such a purchase. Tall, lean, sardonically sanctimonious, almost diabolical with his sharply trimmed black facial hair, Mr. Kublick’s Marc questions mercilessly: “You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?” Not surprisingly, Serge is disappointed, upset and angry with his friend.

"Art" runs for one more weekend, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets or information call (609) 258-7062, or visit www.PrincetonSummerTheater.org.

The conflicts escalate. Personally offended by what he sees as Serge’s arrogant pretension and some sort of violation of their friendship, Marc goes to their mutual friend Yvan (Mr. Hoover) for support.

The ever-tolerant Yvan, caught in the middle and thoroughly engulfed in his own impending wedding and a rebellion already among both families regarding the wording of the invitations, wants only to play the role of peacemaker. Naïve, sweet, and eager to please, he ends up infuriating both Marc and Serge.

As the scene shifts from one apartment to the next, the debate intensifies. All three men express their anguish and chagrin to each other and then directly to the audience in engaging monologues interspersed to keep us apprised of each character’s thoughts.

All three actors are comfortable and confident in their demanding roles. They understand these characters, and they take the time to delineate them in telling detail.

Ms. Clair moves the action efficiently and effectively to bring across plot, characterization, and ideas. The three contrasting types are credible and compelling, with key moments and comic timing carefully honed for maximum impact.

Mr. Hoover’s natural comedic gift lends significant warmth and humor to the proceedings, as the woeful Yvan suffers verbal and physical assaults at the hands his self-centered buddies. Despite a couple of character breaks when the actor is perhaps enjoying himself too much, Mr. Hoover creates a memorable and highly sympathetic figure.

Production values, under the experienced professional hand of technical director and designer Allen Grimm, are excellent, and contribute richly to the success of this show.

Ms. Reza’s play ultimately seems not to take a stand on its main subjects — art, friendship, and male behavior, but perhaps works most effectively in its light-hearted mocking of pretentious, self-centered, and cruel excesses in all three realms.

The large egos and the oblivious self-absorption of all three protagonists, along with their penchant for throwing around many of the clichés of what passes for contemporary intellectual discourse, provide some of the most telling and engaging moments of the evening.

A riveting, astonishing ending — possibly rhapsodic, possibly ironic — resolves nothing, but definitely leaves the audience thoroughly entertained, still wondering: about minimalist art and the white painting, about men and their peculiar interactions. It’s a fittingly evocative culmination to a superb 2007 season for Princeton Summer Theater.

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