In the 27 years since its debut, Yasmina Reza’s arch play Art has racked up awards on formidable stages across the world. Its premiere production in 1994, at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées in Paris, earned the Molière awards for Best Author, Best Play, and Best Production. The English-language translation by playwright Christopher Hampton—which first hit the stage with an all-star cast of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, and Ken Stott— won the 1997 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy. The Broadway run also featured an all-star cast—Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina—and nabbed the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play; Molina, in the role of Yvan, was nominated for a Best Actor. The play’s enduring appeal and small cast (three men) make it a popular production in steady rotation at regional theaters.
For the current production of Art at Shakespeare & Company, the setting has shifted from a Paris apartment to a garden terrace in the Berkshires, neatly designed (by Patrick Brennan) in the outdoor Roman Garden Theatre, with patio furniture and a bar on an astroturf lawn. Because the stage is not tented, rain caused the opening performance to be moved to an indoor theater, but Covid-cautious ticket holders (like yours truly) could choose to see the play on another day.
The play is set in motion when Serge, a dermatologist, proudly shows off his newly purchased white painting—by the hot artist Antrios—to his longtime friend Marc, an aeronautical engineer, who scoffs at the painting and is appalled that his friend has paid $200,000 for it (an even more princely sum when the play was written). Marc calls the painting “shit.” Serge says Marc is incapable of appreciating or understanding contemporary art, and both men turn to their mutual friend Yvan to take their side, claiming the other has lost his sense of humor.
Yvan has bigger problems to contend with than his friends’ disagreement over a painting; he’s getting married and dealing with family bickering, and he’s just made a career transition, from textiles to stationery. He’s sympathetic to both viewpoints, and astounded by the price that Serge has paid for the painting, yet open to seeing something that moves him in the white painting. He lands in the middle of the dispute, both jester and mediator.
There are plenty of laugh-out loud moments in the play, and plenty of pathos, too. As the action unfolds, each character takes on archetypal characteristics. Marc (played by “ranney”) wants to be the alpha dog, and he’s threatened that Serge (Michael F. Toomey) seems to be moving out from under his sway by adopting a new set of friends and sensibilities, culminating in this art purchase.
Yvan (Lawrence L. James), the people pleaser of this trio, gets the best bit in the show when he arrives late for a dinner date with his friends and brings the audience to hysterics with his excuse, recounting the stresses related to his upcoming nuptials, including high-drama disputes with his mother and his fiancee. James hits this demanding scene out of the ballpark in an energetic tour de force. It’s a welcome break from the bickering between Serge and Marc, which promptly resumes as the two turn their ire on hapless Yvan.
Just when it seems that the men’s friendship is about to be torn asunder, the play reaches a satisfying conclusion, which I’ll not spoil for anyone who has never seen Art. Suffice it to say that in the end, the white painting—with its exorbitant price—turns out to be less valuable than friendship. The success of this production lies in sterling direction by Christopher V. Edwards and excellent acting from all three characters. Though it might not have been the point of the play, Art also delivers a degree of hope for resolving polarizing points of view in these tumultuous times.
Art by Yasmina Reza runs at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, through August 22.