April 5, 2017

Friendships Are Strained by the Purchase of an Abstract Work of Art; Pegasus Theatre Project Presents Yasmina Reza’s Comedy in a Gallery

ART: Performances are underway for the Pegasus Theatre Project’s production of Yasmina Reza’s “Art.” Translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Jennifer Nasta Zefutie, the play runs through April 9 at the West Windsor Arts Center. From left: Marc (Peter Bisgaier), Yvan (Matthew Cassidy), and Serge (David Nikolas) are shown above. (Photo by John M. Maurer)

Art is a comedy about aesthetic differences, personality clashes, and a need people have for others to see things their way. A long-standing but uneasy friendship between three men is tested when one of the friends pays a lavish amount of money for an all-white painting. Spending decisions by the other characters also are called into question.

Written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, Art is presented by the Pegasus Theatre Project. This emerging troupe is the resident theatre company of the West Windsor Arts Center.

“Committed to examining the full spectrum of situations and emotions humankind experiences, Pegasus stages intimate productions that are compelling and fun,” the company writes in their program notes. With their production of Art, an engaging comedy performed by a cast with good chemistry between its members, Pegasus succeeds in fulfilling its mission.

The story concerns three friends: Serge, Marc, and Yvan. Serge infuriates Marc by spending 200,000 francs on a “painting” that appears to be nothing more than a white canvas. Marc dryly asserts that the work is a “white painting with white lines.” Serge returns the barb, labeling Marc as “one of those new-style intellectuals, who are not only enemies of modernism, but seem to take some sort of incomprehensible pride in running it down.”

Yvan is already overwhelmed by conflict surrounding his wedding plans: “Major crisis: both stepmothers want their names on the wedding invitation,” he announces. Desperate to minimize contention in his friendship with Serge and Marc, he takes the point of view of whichever man he happens to be visiting. Later, they accuse him of being “an amoeba.”

Reza’s script is a mixture of short dialogue scenes interspersed with monologues in which each character confides in the audience. The earlier scenes are conversations between two of the men, while most of the later scenes involve all three characters.

Because the central conflict stems from the fact that these men are too similar in their self-absorption, strong acting is required to distinguish the characters. Fortunately, this trio is more than equal to the task. To Marc, Peter Bisgaier brings a controlling aggression. As Serge, David Nikolas battles Marc with defensive urbanity. Matthew Cassidy complements the other two; his Yvan is a milquetoast on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The blocking by director Jennifer Nasta Zefutie is apt. As Serge and Marc have drifted apart, Zefutie frequently places them on opposite ends of the stage. Yvan, who nervously tries to hold the friendship together, often is in between them. When Yvan delivers a neurotic monologue about the tension surrounding his wedding plans, he is in front of the canvas, temporarily becoming as much of a curiosity as the “painting.”

Judi Parrish’s set is visually sparse, which fits Serge’s taste in art. The costumes are color-coordinated to match the set and paintings. Serge wears white and grey, in keeping with the décor of the characters’ apartments. Yvan and Marc wear, respectively, blue and dark beige — colors which match the only other painting that appears onstage. As the audience will discover, the color blue is important for another reason.

David Sarid has composed incidental music whose fitful starts and stops capture the nervous energy of the three characters. The musical vocabulary consists mostly of a pointillistic staccato that somewhat evokes Stephen Sondheim’s score for Sunday in the Park with George.

The performance does not take place in an auditorium. Instead, chairs have been set up in the Arts Center’s gallery. Of course, a play about art is well-served by this venue; arguably, the performance space doubles as the setting. (In April of 2018, Pegasus will present Stephen Sachs’ Bakersfield Mist, another comedy that explores how the acquisition of a painting affects the protagonist’s life.)

The works on display (and for sale) in the gallery are worth viewing before and after the performance. These include Helene Plank’s Variegated Dahlia, with hand-sewn buttons and beads on canvas; William K. Powers’ Thunder Horse, crafted from such items as a feather and a wooden branch; and Lori Langsner’s landscape Morning on the Lake, oil on canvas.

Art originally premiered at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées in 1994. The Broadway production of Hampton’s translation opened in 1998 and ran for a year and a half, winning the Tony for Best Play. Other accolades include the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play.

Yasmina Reza’s other plays include God of Carnage, The Passage of Winter, and How You Talk the Game. Christopher Hampton’s credits include the play Total Eclipse; the screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons; and, with Don Black, the libretto for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard.

This production is the second offering of the Pegasus Theatre Project, which was founded in 2015 by Peter Bisgaier, Judi Parrish, and Jennifer Nasta Zefutie. The company launched in 2016, with Proof; in September they will follow Art with Neil Simon’s Chapter Two.

The mood of Art is contentious; when the characters are not bickering, they express their irritation with each other to the audience. However, their relentless verbal sparring is amusing, as Reza skillfully mines humor from personality conflicts and differences in perception.

Presented by the Pegasus Theatre Project, “Art” will play at the West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road in Princeton Junction, through April 9. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 759-0045 or visit pegasustheatrenj.org.